Steam Stories 2023

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A Flying Scotsman experience….June 2023

To celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary we booked the ‘Salisbury Express’ Flying Scotsman on June 21st.   We arrived in eager anticipation at Paddington at 9.00 for a 9.38 departure and the excitement at the station was palpable on Platform one awaiting the Cardiff train to depart in order for the Scotsman to pull in.  The platform was packed with both passengers, railway staff and enthusiasts.  It came in front facing, so suddenly a mass stampede in order to see the engine, which was certainly worth the walk as the pure magnificence for me seeing it for the first time was very emotional and overwhelming and the heat, and the smell of the coal and the steam felt like a bygone era of magical travel.

We found our seats front facing in the premier class coach, and greeted by the Steward and given our guide and menus for the day.  The train left promptly, and you can really feel the weight and pull of the engine as we pulled out of Paddington, we had a real sense of anticipation of the day ahead.  A full English breakfast and sparkling wine was served as we headed westwards and first stop Slough to take on more passengers. 

There was an announcement that there would be a water stop at Newbury Racecourse and a chance to get out and take some photos, as we pulled in, I could honestly not believe the number of people there were literally hundreds and lots of family’s children out to see the Scotsman, it was very special.  As the train went through Newbury Station there were children lined up all along the railings waving union jacks and waving.  In eager anticipation of approaching Hungerford the train had now built-up considerable speed and literally flew through the common, and onwards to Bedwyn and Westbury as we passed fields and bridges there were just people at every vantage point, waving, taking photos and it made me realise the true magic that the Scotsman creates. 

We arrived to a massive crowd at Salisbury where we alighted and watched the train move into the sidings.  We then had some time to walk around Salisbury and enjoy an essential G and T!  Before re joining at 5.00 for the journey home again the station was mobbed to see it depart and the atmosphere on the train now was in full party mode.  We enjoyed a very good 3 course dinner, and cheese as we passed through, Southampton, Basingstoke and Reading and still seeing people everywhere lining the route.

We pulled into Paddington at 8pm to another huge crowd ready to surround the engine and speak to the driver and crew and a chance to see up close inside the footplate and to see young children so excited to see it was truly special.  I walked across the concourse with a fellow traveller who was literally beaming and told me he had fulfilled his boyhood dream and we both said how proud we felt of  being able to celebrate 100 years of the Flying Scotsman and a British feat of engineering at its very best.
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A Sophos trip..April 2023

The day started early and it was still raining, the train was about 25 minutes late no doubt due to reduced speed due to the incessant rain that we have all enjoyed this last month or so. However it did give me time to use the car parking app for the days parking real cheap on a Saturday at Hungerford but my payment was declined by John Lewis, I could not pursue it as the very long train had arrived and we had been asked not to use our mobiles (unable to clarify until Monday morning but somehow the payment for car park triggered a Fraud Alert with them!!), so I worried all day about the fine to come.

We were Pullman coach D and it was only just on the platform, 3 others and the engine (diesel) ahead and they weren’t,  the rest f the coaces filled the length of the platform. We settled into the real comfortable seats (like a high backed winged gPlan armchair, needless to say that our window needed constant wiping due to the condensation but no big problem as we were on the familiar route towards Paddington.

The waiting staff were really friendly as they served us an alternative to the Bucks Fizz something added to Prosecco (Bellini, yuk). Over the next hour various courses of our breakfast were served and the Full English was rather lacking, no egg and the smallest Cumbrian sausage I have ever seen, my partner does not eat an English so enjoyed 2 croissants (one of them being mine) there was nothing extra offered to her, the coffee however was enjoyable, no fruit juice with the breakfast either.

Soon on the outskirts of London we halted for the Steam engine to be coupled on. Before crossing the Thames at Chelsea Marina we navigated an intricate maze of railway lines cross overs and unders not knowing they were ever there. As we crossed the Thames our views to the east were really new to me and I had worked in London many many years ago 60 ish.

On down through Brixton then passing Crystal Palace to our right through, Peckham Penge etc and on into Kent, at times in real deep cuttings and quite a few tunnels, then the unique vista of the Kent countryside, still very grey outside though but along the route were the people waving enjoying our engine that was really working at times.

I forgot to say that at our table there was a Dad and his son in law who had joined at Pewsey, Dad made the journey extra interesting as he had worked for BR (high up) for many years, we had opened our slide window a little after the engine was coupled up to get a little of the nostalgic smell in.

We arrived on time in Canterbury and with two hours to spend (not three as the brochure said) to a still damp and chilly day.

We departed on time at 2.45 to a glass of champagne and a selection of canapés (2) and  on to Margate and Dover giving us different views along the coast before joining the line back around Ashford and to London, on taking this way (like a figure 6) our window was now looking in a different direction . On going through Brixton I looked out to see from above Coldharbour Lane where many many years ago I had gone into a fabulous tool shop to purchase tools for my apprenticeship, onwards across the Thames before meeting up to join our Diesel!

Five course dinner was served over a long time but it did allow the food to gently go down and with our table companions making it extra enjoyable, the half bottles of wine each did not materialise but instead they gave  us a credit £10.50 each (more money outlaid) against any bottle of wine so a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc cost me  £29 – £8, we brought the remainder home.

A fourteen and a half hours day for us but another 2 hours each way for those that came up from Bristol and even longer for the train staff who were still happy as we left the train, but maybe that was because I was getting off!
The startLater down to Canterbury and back to London
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A journey to North Devon in August 1959

I hail from Suffolk, at that time something of a rural backwater when East Anglia was an area less travelled by people wishing to get somewhere, but now rather trendy with fast communications to the capital, a lively cultural scene, and the largest container port in the country.

Perversely we were selected to be early adopters of diesel traction in the British Railways ‘Modernisation Plan’. Having seen the arrival of the Britannia locomotives following the nationalisation of the LNER – the first Pacifics to operate in our area – we were subjected to the dubious benefits of a variety of untried and tested diesel types. Steam continued to have a role during the transition period and I can remember making a steam-hauled journey as late as the mid-1960s – probably substituting for a failed diesel – although by then I had stopped marking off engine numbers in my Eastern Region Ian Allan abc booklet – alas!

Before the war my parents had enjoyed a holiday at the village of Combe Martin in a wonderful setting on the N Devon coast. By 1959 I was about to prepare for secondary school having just scraped through the 11-plus exam and they thought that 20 years later was a good time to relive that holiday experience before the burden of my new schooling set in.

For me, travelling to the far side of the country was a great adventure, certainly taking me the furthest from my home town, when an occasional trip to London was a big thing. I still have the class photo taken on the steps of the Albert Memorial from a memorable primary school trip to the Science Museum at Kensington.

I lacked the railway knowledge on which to base an understanding of how we were to get to North Devon on the train. Piecing together the few details which remain and joining it up with what I have subsequently learnt about the railway network and its history, it seems that we took the express to London Liverpool St, crossed over to Waterloo by the Underground and took the ACE (Atlantic Coast Express) to Ilfracombe – on the Atlantic Coast of Devon!

During the 1950s I had followed the fashion of schoolboys in that era of collecting locomotive numbers – what a wholesome time with the Eagle weekly comic, Meccano engineering sets and accompanying magazine, model train sets, etc. The first thing I was to learn about travelling out of Waterloo was that my abc book of numbers was of no use on the Southern Region! On emerging from underground at the station I soon realised that the loco numbers started with “3”, whereas my book had only “6”s, and “7”s for the BR Standard locos (yes, I had been at sixes and sevens for years). A suitable show of disappointment was enough to secure another 2/6 worth of Ian Allan:

Now suitably armed, I was ready for my first ‘foreign’ rail journey. I remember going out through the London suburbs on the old L&SWR main line, passing Surbiton which to my folk’s amusement I pronounced as “Surbitration”. This routing would take us all the way to Exeter (firmly in S Devon) before heading for the north coast. In principle it would have been possible to have travelled more directly by the old GWR route from Paddington, passing through Hungerford (there was a missed opportunity) before taking the branch line from Taunton to Barnstaple. I suppose that BR marketing was channelling holiday makers to the Southern route for their own business purposes (like making a case to close the branch from Taunton) and it may even have been quicker (by their design) to go the long way round.

Of course travelling by the Western Region of BR would have required a different edition of the abc (we didn’t stretch to the All Regions volume), and it came as a disappointment on my actual journey to discover that the two regions did overlap in some areas, particularly at Exeter and Barnstaple. This was brought home to me when I saw pesky locomotives with only 4-digit numbers (on cast metal number plates) which I was unable to mark off!

Once clear of the London area I have to say that I took in little of the lineside surroundings as we sped westwards, behind a West Country Pacific. This I only found out later, the front of the train having been too far away at the Waterloo terminus to inspect before departure. I know we would have travelled through Basingstoke, Whitchurch and Andover, places which I have visited regularly since moving to this area nearly fifty years later, but it all flashed by in a blur at the time, and even more of a blur now!

One fixed point which I can relate is when we stopped at Exeter Central to take on a pilot loco for the steeper gradients ahead. This manoeuvre required longer than a normal station stop (thinking about it again we must have stopped for water a various points along the way as the Southern had no water troughs for non-stop re-watering). Anyway, time to stretch the legs after several hours on the train, and particularly time for a photograph! No, not by me – it was to be many years later before I was motivated to start taking photos of trains, and equally many years of lost opportunity. So a moment in time captured as any holiday snap, but one which has considerable personal significance:

Instead of the Pacific we now have an N Class 2-6-0 on the front of the train. On the GWR they would have inserted the pilot loco behind the train engine which would have taken even longer. Just visible is no. 34032 Camelford, an unrebuilt (‘spam-can’) Bulleid West Country light Pacific of which a number survive to this day, some even in the original condition from the 1940s with the various innovations like chain-driven valve gear and air-smoothed casing. These were replaced as non-standard on many members of the class in BR days. The result of this impromptu photo-shoot was that my father and I got a severe telling off from my mother, fearing that we would have been left behind by the departing train – a scenario which has been repeated, on more than one occasion, by the next generation!

I know that the next stage of the journey would have been very interesting, but I have little memory of it now, or more particularly I can’t separate whatever memories I did retain from what I have subsequently seen and learnt …. about the steep decent from Central to the GWR station as Exeter St Davids, starting off from there heading back towards London before taking the branch north, now dubbed the Tarka line in honour of a certain literary otter. Barnstaple would have been a fascinating place with its separate Southern and Western stations and the rickety old bridge over the River Taw which the Southern needed to reach the north coast.

It was to be this bridge which forced the closure of the branch onwards to the coast at Ilfracombe once the ex-GWR line (on the right side of the river) had been closed. I think I do remember the wonder of taking the train over the water (it was a narrow single-track bridge) but can’t recall the tremendous effort that the two locos must have had to make to take the train up 500 feet or so to the summit tunnel before descending into Ilfracombe station, itself some 200 feet above the sea. I do remember that this was not the end of the journey. By now it was late afternoon after a very early start- taking the ‘tram’ to the station (actually an electric trolleybus, the tramways having been taken up in the 1920s) but there was still considerable excitement queuing in the station forecourt for the bus which would take us the 5 wiggly miles along the coast road to Combe Martin.

The holiday itself is equally a blur from the mists of time. I can see now that my parents were hoping to recreate some of the magic of those pre-war years of their previous visit but I, at least, was evidence that times had changed! I found the scenery at Combe Martin enchanting, but that’s an adult take on it. The village featured in a recent TV programme and the sudden appearance after more than sixty years of an image of the coastal setting with the Hangman Hills in the background shot through me like a lightning bolt. So something must been burned into my memory, both visually and emotionally.

Ilfracombe was an interesting place to visit, we had a very wet bus excursion to Looe and Polperro on the south coast (a not very successful re-run for my folks) and I had my first hay-fever attack in the dusty air, picnicking by fields being harvested on the Hangman Hills, something I have just about grown out of now. I remember nothing of the return journey to East Anglia with the latter part in the dark, I imagine.

While away I had actually reached the age of 11, so school started inauspiciously a few days later, my being the baby in the year groups ahead of me. But it all worked out well – from scraping into the lowest stream in the 5-class intake, I was near the top of the top stream reaching the GCEs. And while my interest in railways took a severe dip during my teens (more lost opportunities at the end of steam on BR), I eventually embraced what had obviously been lying dormant and started to get interested in railways again. Second time round as an adult it seemed that the rules had changed. Now it was quirky and rather eccentric to express an interest in locomotives, rolling stock, timetables etc. However never having been too concerned about what other people thought I was able to continue to an extent from where I had left off, better armed to explore the railway world. Amazingly steam was still running in preservation on the main line as though nothing had ever happened – well, in your dreams!


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