Monday, 4 August 2008


'Black Five' no. 44848 withdrawn and stored on Rosegrove (10F) MPD 6 April 1968

There are photographs by the thousand. There are also cine films, now available on video, and tape recordings, now issued on compact disk. Despite the plethora of documentary material from the 1950s and 1960s that has been collected, preserved and reissued, it remains difficult to capture the essence of the steam railway age. It was, of course, a question of at least four senses: to be experienced it had to be seen, heard, smelt and felt (and tasted?--I wonder....). Perhaps we all ought to do more to recapture those impressions. Here are some notes culled from my own memories and reading.

Water, Water Everywhere

The dank, moist climate of Britain in the first half of the 20th century seemed eminently suited to the steam locomotive, with its voracious appetite for water. During the steam age, columns, tanks, towers, troughs and hoses were to be found everywhere that there were lines. Engines could take water once they had brought their trains to a stand at the hydraulic buffers of King's Cross. Many smaller stations had water columns at the end of the platform--a nightmare during the coldest days of winter when coal-fired braziers had to be kept alight by the side of the columns in order to stop the water supply freezing up.

Here are two short anecdotes about locomotives and water--excesses of water, in fact. The first is culled from page 84 of Patrick Whitehouse's and David St John Thomas's LNER 150, while the second comes from Volume 2 of Richard Hardy's reminiscences, Railways in the Blood, page 15.

The renowned Leslie Preston Parker was Divisional Manager of the former GER lines (the Eastern Section) of the LNER during the interwar years and he continued under BR until his retirement in 1953. This formidable man, who never raised his voice but still succeeded in terrorising the workforce, was seldom to be seen in the running shed. However, one day in the 1930s he was making his way in bowler hat and spats, furled brolly in hand, across the Jubilee Shed front at Stratford while one of the depot's hundreds of tank engines (an 'N7', perhaps) was having its side-tanks filled with water. Suddenly, the water cascaded over the side, the motion, the axle-boxes and the tracks. The fireman dashed away from his tea-making to spin the stopcock shut. Parker cast his reptilian eye over the hapless footplateman and said "Tell me, fireman, when you are at home, do you allow your bath to overflow?" The reply, in broadest East-End Cockney, must have been one of the few that got the better of that formidable railway administrator: "Barf, Guv, barf? I ain't got a bleedin' barf!"

In the second instance, an 8A Edge Hill crew were working one of the London to Merseyside expresses one evening with a 'Princess Royal' Pacific, perhaps no. 46201, 46204, 46207 or 46208, all of which were Edge Hill engines. At a set of water troughs on the West Coast main line the fireman let down the scoop but could not wind it out in time. Cascades of water washed lumps of coal across the footplate. Sheets of spray soaked everything, including the driver. He turned around and, with incomparable Scouse irony and timing asked "Did we gerrany?"

Stories also abound of the effect on the first coach of a passenger train when the fireman misjudged the water intake from a set of troughs. It was not an uncommon event and often it washed the grime off the front of the first coach. Passengers were treated to the sight of a small waterfall down the windows. However, the effects were decidedly different on warm days when the windows were open. The filler cap, invariably at the train end of the tender, would fly open and fountains of water would cascade out. If the first coach was a van that housed the guard he would know he had to shut the windows in time, but it was a different matter if it were a passenger coach. The first compartment could fill up and soaked passengers would stagger out into the corridor on a tidal wave of water, waving soggy newspapers and cursing the railway. It is remarkable what passengers put up with during the steam age. They protested, but they seldom demanded compensation and rarely if ever sued. Moreover, sympathy was rationed among the poorly-paid front-line staff of the railways who had to deal with the luckless travellers.

Perhaps the worst such case occurred on the Great Western Railway and involved the company's only Pacific, no.111 Great Bear. Its tender, like the loco larger than life, was a ramshackle contraption of unpredictable gait. Over a set of troughs it directed a jet of water at the first passenger vehicle with such murderous force that it blew a hole in the coachwork and half filled the carriage with water. No doubt the aftermath involved more than a "please explain" notice. Churchward must have had his bad feelings about the Great Bear confirmed by the incident. When Gresley's first 'A1' 4-6-2, no. 1470 Great Northern, was outshopped, Churchward is reputed to have said "What did that young man want to build a Pacific for? We could have sold him ours."

Thursday, 5 June 2008

To Hitchin (34D) and Beyond

The years of my childhood awkwardly straddled the end of steam on the East Coast Main Line. I was too young to sample the full flavour, but old enough to get some idea of the momentous changes that were taking place in rail transport.

In 1962 I was nine years old. With one of my school-friends I made my first solo spotter's outing. It involved taking the bus, a green London Transport RT, from Stevenage to Hitchin (fare one shilling and sixpence) and nosing around the railway installations of that town. It was an emotional experience--a taste of (relative) freedom and the chance to start learning the art of how to trespass discretely on railway property.

Architecturally, the station buildings at Hitchin were typically understated in the GNR manner, low-pitched and vaguely Italianate. On the south side, the Hertfordshire clunch had been excavated into chalky cliffs, beneath which there were rows and rows of sidings full of a tantalising array of rolling stock. Indeed, the copious stabling areas on all four sides of the station were jammed full of coaches and wagons. The shear variety was amazing. The propensity to name the types of wagon after creatures of the sea was well in evidence, for there were examples of Catfish, Crocodile, Dogfish, Grampus, Mullet, Plaice, Salmon, Shark and Sturgeon, many of which were used on engineers' trains during weekend possessions of the permanent way.

In 1952 Hitchin (34D) MPD had an allocation of 29 locomotives: eight Thompson 'B1s' (one of which, no. 61105, may have been in its localised role as Departmental no. 27), eight Thompson 'L1s' tank engines, nine Ivatt 0-6-0s of the 'J1', 'J3', 'J5' and 'J6' classes, and a Gresley 'N2/2' non-condensing tank. By 1955 it still had eight 'B1s', six of them unchanged (including Dept no. 27), but the other two substituted by 61027 Madoqua and 61251 Oliver Bury. At that time Kings Cross (34A) had five 'B1s' and New England (34E) had five. These eighteen 4-6-0s were often to be seen rolling along on semi-fast passenger trains and miscellaneous freights, sometimes on the Hertford loop as well as the GNR main line and Cambridge branch. So were Hitchin's six 'J6' 0-6-0s, which worked the dwindling traffic of pick-up freights, Ten further examples of the class were stabled at Hornsey (34B).

By 1962 the cramped two-road shed behind the up platform of Hitchin station was reduced to servicing locomotives and stabling three 'B1s' that were used for Departmental work (heating stationary passenger trains, hauling engineers' trains and marshalling stock in the sidings). They were 61314, 61389 and no. 25 (alias 61272). On that day two of them were in steam in the yard, easily visible from the station.

Until 1963 'B1's would occasionally work a late afternoon class 'D' freight in the up direction south of Hitchin. They would bowl steadily along at 35 mph amid clouds of steam with a heterogeneous mixture of trucks behind them, including some vacuum-breaked vans marshalled next to the engine.

Until 1964 a double junction was situated north of Hitchin station. Not only did the line to Cambridge branch off to the northeast, as it still does, but on the other side there was the line from Bedford. This very minor railway connection, little more than 14 miles end to end, was the epitome of the rural branch railway.

The line curved gracefully through the Bedfordshire countryside avoiding the parkland and ancient monuments, which were many and romantic, for exmaple Warden Abbey, Deadman's Cross, Old Warden and Southill Parks, Ickwell and Campton Manor Houses and Meppershall Motte and Bailey. It ran 13.5 miles from Bedford station to the junction with the GNR main line, which was three quarters of a mile north of Hitchin station. Travelling southwards the first mile and a half ran fairly straight through Bedford itself. That this was the Midland Railway's original route to London is testified by the fact that it continues the straight drift of the northerly route, whereas the line to St Pancras, built subsequently, curves off to the southwest. A spur was added to the old LNWR line from Bletchley to Cambridge, which crossed above the Bedford-Hitchin branch.

There were four intermediate stations: Cardington, Southill, Shefford and Henlow (renamed Henlow Camp in 1933 as the nearby Army barracks grew in size). A total of four miles of the route was embanked and two and a half miles were built in cuttings. A half-mile long tunnel was built through the Greensand ridge (not without loss of life among the labourers who worked on it). On top of this local eminence an Ordnance Survey triangulation point is located. From Old Warden, south of the tunnel, to Shefford the line was double tracked for slightly more than two and three-quarter miles.

The MR line to Hitchin was authorised in 1853 and opened on 8 May 1857. At its apogee in 1910 there were six passenger trains each way per day. But it lasted little more than a century. The last passenger train ran on 30 December 1961. It was composed of two auto coaches hauled by the Bedford (15D) standard locomotive no. 84005. Freight traffic ceased in December 1964 and the line was lifted soon afterwards with that peculiarly British zeal to eradicate as many of the traces as possible.

But Old Warden tunnel could not be so easily obliterated. One fresh, warm summer's day when I was about 13 years old a friend and I decided to walk along the trace of the line from Hitchin to Bedford. The tunnel, with its oval opening was completely intact (except for the lack of rails, sleepers and ballast), so in we went. We had no torch and the contrast with the sunlight was intense. At first we were acutely fearful that the shadows on the sandy floor would mask deep holes that we might fall into, but there were none. The sound of dripping water echoed off the walls and the atmosphere was cool and damp. When we had gone a quarter of a mile the light at each end was reduced to a small aperture and we blundered along in terror towards the bright pinpoint ahead of us. But all was well and we emerged unscathed and triumphant. In the tunnel the ghosts of Midland Railway trains seemed all around us: 2-4-0s with shiny brass safety-valve covers and trundling four-wheel coaches with prominent footboards along their sides.

Clearly, the very small number of passengers that used the railway from the four adjacent villages were not enough to keep it going, and neither were the people who travelled between Hitchin and Bedford. A bus service was more economical and the line ended up with negligible freight business. But the Bedford to Hitchin branch was built, in the first instance, as part of a major route from the Midlands to London. It could have been retained, mothballed at insignificant cost, as a diversionary route of some strategic importance. But that would have required long-term foresight, and little or none of that was present in the 1960s' urge to modernise at all costs.

When the last vestiges of steam had finally gone from the East Coast main line, I hung around the diesel depot at 34D. A kindly driver, perhaps remembering his own early passion for trainspotting, gave me a driving lesson on the Type 1 D8028--another emotional moment.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Langley Junction

Langley Junction, where the loop line to Hertford North joined the East Coast main line, was a place of numerous attractions. An ancient iron-plate girder bridge spanned the line. Next to it was a modern concrete bridge carrying a dual carriageway and beside that was a spacious GNR signal box with a frame of about 80 levers. On the other side, next to the road to the coal merchant's sidings was a fence adorned with an old cast-iron sign, thick with innumerable coats of paint that had faded to a pale purple, on which the GNR informed the public that 'Trespassing is prohibited--By Order, 1913'. The message was a stern reminder of Edwardian probity. Towards Hitchin there was a set of water troughs, 594 yards long. They invited one to stand on the oak fence at the side of the lines and throw small stones at the long furrows of water. The plop and clunk when they hit the mark was very satisfying.

In the late 1950s the troughs were still an important installation. On the down side of the main line just after the junction there was a water-softening plant that consisted of a huge cylindrical tower, about 40 feet tall, fed by a pipe from a large open-topped tank located further up the slope on a set of brick arches. The steel-plated side was covered with faded rust-inhibiting paint that had weathered to a matt pinkish-maroon not unlike old Wedgwood china.

A steel staircase ran in a spiral up the side of the tank and someone had written 'Vote Labour' in large letters on it. As an aside, one day in the early 1960s Sir Alec Douglas Home took some time off from huntin', shootin' and fishing on his Scottish estate to address the masses, in his clipped, condescending patrician accent, from a rostrum in the town centre. Nobody actually shouted "Wot abaht the workers?" but he was roundly booed and whistled in that stronghold of support for Wilson's Labour. Simply not done, old boy.

Adventurous children would shin up the metal ladder of the open-topped water tank and jiggle the levers that controlled the water syphon. From that point there was an excellent, if somewhat vertiginous, panorama of the main line with in the foreground an acre of scummy water upon which mats of brilliant green algae floated. Occasionally, the syphon would block and for hours on end water would cascade spectacularly over the side of the tank and down the slope to the lineside, where it would disappear into the cess.

British Railways built a curious structure of yellow London brick and reinforced concrete that straddled the siding by the water tower, apparently so that locomotives could have water-softening powder poured directly into their tanks. On occasion in the late 1950s an ancient 'J6' 0-6-0 from Hitchin 34D shed would be stationed under this building for several hours, hissing gently and waiting its turn on a pick-up freight. It would be given water from the enormous tank that supplied the troughs, which also had a filler pipe complete with the usual leather bag.

In the early 1960s these installations were dismantled and demolished. Suddenly the insides of that huge maroon tank, which had seemed so mysterious and so permanent, were laid bare. The central syphon was coated with decades of lime incrustation; the white of the chalk deposits was stained a patchy brown with rust. No one could believe the change in scenery when it was all gone. No more would the East Coast expresses send up that great travelling cloud of spray as they dropped the scoop at 60 mph.

One night I was invited into Langley box by the young signalman. We sat there in the 25-watt glow of his lamps with his tape recorder playing, appropriately, old "Shadows" hits. For a short while it was possible to imagine that the decline of steam had not happened and the 'A3s' and 'A4s' would still be rushing past the home signal outside.

Wellingborough MPD

Rosegrove, 1968

One fine October afternoon in 1966 I visited Wellingborough MPD (15B). It was four months after the last of the steam locos had been withdrawn and hauled away. The shed stood abandoned, untouched since its last days of activity, but now completely empty. Ash and clinker from locomotives lay between the roads, tools were scattered on the brick floor, PWS notices had turned yellow and brittle under the glass of the noticeboard. Several of those ancient and curiously ornate iron wheelbarrows for ash removal lay around. The light of the autumn afternoon streamed through the small windows, with their cobwebbed, sooty panes, curiously like stained glass in a cathedral. Sunrays gilded the dust and etched the shadows. It remains imprinted on my memory all these years later: a silent scene crowded with the ghosts of a century of daily toil amid the vapours, hot oil, grit, ash and coal dust of the steam age.

Having read so much about Willesden shed (1A) I felt I had to go and see it. Finally, on a blustery, overcast day in November 1965 I trod my way cautiously down the cinder path by the Grand Union Canal and was there. It was too late. The cavernous mouth of the running shed was empty, vast, windswept and black with dust. But there was a surprise. In the corner were the last four BR '2MTs', the ones that took the empty stock into and out of Euston until steam finished at the London end of the WCML. There they were, black and oily, but by no means decrepit: nos. 78029, 78032, 78033 and 78043, all withdrawn in October 1965. These serviceable little engines were a mere eleven years old. They were coupled up ready to be hauled off and scrapped at Cashmore's in South Wales. All four would be in pieces within six weeks.

But down at Nine Elms (70A) I did get a ride of a few tens of yards inside the shed on 'West Country' Pacific no. 34005 Barnstaple, thanks to a kindly driver who didn't seem to care much about the rules. It was a place I couldn't bear to visit when steam ended. The description of the final evening in July 1967 was just too poignant: the melodious whistle of the last Pacific on shed echoing in the dark off the nearby blocks of flats until there was no longer enough steam to make it sound.

Last Rites on the Great Central Railway

In early 1966 Aylesbury station became a place of pilgrimage. It was quiet there. The silence was interrupted only by the infrequent arrival of diesel multiple units from Marylebone and the shunting manoeuvres of BR-Sulzer 'type 2s' at the far end of the down platform. To the north, the twin tracks of the old Great Central main line disappeared into the green and mysterious countryside as if Middle England had swallowed them up.

We knew it was about to end and so we memorised the timetable of the semi-fasts to Nottingham, infrequent though they were, and waited patiently for hours until one came along. It was always a Colwick 'Black Five', coated in grease, grimy with coal dust and zebra-striped by priming deposits. It would clank briskly into the station and pull up in a cloud of steam at the water column. Behind it would be a short rake of tatty maroon coaches, the compartment ones with varnished oak rails at the windows. Nos. 44830 and 45324 were often used on these turns. In August they were both transferred to 9F Heaton Mersey. No. 45324 had been at Colwick for only 26 weeks.

The fireman would climb onto the tender, lift the filler cap and insert the bag, while the driver turned the stopcock handle at the base of the cast-iron water column. They would look mutely and gravely at the audience of enthusiasts and spotters who stood there silently drinking in the scene, straining to memorise every last detail. The moment when the streaming bag was flung out of the tender and the black arm of the water column was swung away assumed the level of high drama. Then whistles would shrill, the cylinder drain-cocks would hiss and the train would move slowly and deliberately forward until, with syncopated clanking and gathering momentum, it would be gone, leaving only a slight whiff of steam, coal dust and lubricating oil.

In 1952 the Eastern Region shed 38A Colwick, and its subshed at Derby Friargate, had an allocation of 207 locomotives, 76% of them ex-LNER and the rest 'WD' 2-8-0s. These were the freight engines that handled the Nottinghamshire coal traffic, but there was also one named engine, no. 61657 'Doncaster Rovers'. Renumbered 40E the MPD was transferred to the LMR for slightly less than one year until it closed on 12 December 1966. During this period it had an allocation that peaked at 98 locomotives, but they represented only three classes: 28 were 'Black Fives', 65 were Stanier '8Fs' and the other five were BR moguls. The only exception was 'B1' no. 61264, Departmental no. 29, which was used as a stationary boiler. After 49 weeks as the sole representative of former LNER glory, this engine made it into preservation.

During the final week of Nottingham services, three Colwick 'Black Fives' failed at the London end. The last one diagrammed to make the return trip, no. 44825, failed on shed with injector trouble and had to be replaced by no. 44984, mechanically more reliable but visually scruffy, as they so often were. A wreath adorned its smokebox door. Fortunately, under skilled hands this locomotive put up a valiant show of speed on its last turn to Marylebone and back. After only 65 years the Great Central London extension was gone, an absurd loss considering that its promoter, Sir Edward Watkin, was correct in foreseeing the need for a relief line to connect the Northwest with the Continent, with or without a Channel Tunnel.

As the last 'Black Five' of the day disappeared in the direction of Nottingham Victoria, a kindly driver, who saw how it had depressed me, gave me a short ride in the cab of D5002.

Lyme Regis Branch

46441 stored at Carnforth, April 1968

On 8 September 1962 we set off for a family holiday at Lyme Regis. It needed two taxis to get us and our luggage from Barnsbury, London N1, to Waterloo Station. As we drove around Buckingham Palace a gent came out in full morning dress complete with top hat and, steeped in Rev. W. Awdry lore as I was, I shouted "Look--the Fat Controller!"

The chief attraction of Waterloo was the man in shiny waistcoat and rolled-up shirt sleeves who used a long pole with a hook on the end to change the columns of enamelled destination signs on the huge varnished wooden indicator board. The station was a wonderland of 'M7' tanks and 'King Arthur' 4-6-0s. We set off for the West Country at a sprightly pace behind an unrebuilt Bulleid--no. 34041 'Wilton', if I remember rightly.

At Axminster Junction I was off down the platform to see the 'West Country' Pacific depart for Honiton and Exeter. Yellow light from the open firebox door played around the cab and the train left with a thrilling burst of slipping that sent the massive side-rods whirling crazily. Then in came the Lyme train: two green Maunsell composite coaches drawn by 1882-vintage Adams radial tank 4-4-2 no. 30583, the middle one of the three that had been kept on to work the Axminster-Lyme Regis because few other classes of locomotive could negotiate its tight curves. The driver's name was Reuben and his banter with the signalman revealed that they both had thick West Country accents. I still have the ticket for that journey: the fare had just been raised from 1s/4d to 1s/8d, a fact that set the adults in our party muttering. The train trundled sedately around the contours, with the wheel flanges squealing against the rails and the couplings groaning and grating. Cinders and steam mingled with the sea air that streaked through my hair as I stood at the carriage window watching the locomotive do its work. Finally there we were in Lyme station, perched high above the water front and cramped and curved like the rest of the branch line. And a very rural place it was at that point in time.