Steaming in to Didcot

In the pursuit of another enquiry, I happened to stop off at the Didcot Railway Centre, which looks like an ideal way to spend the day. Whether or not the long, hot British summer continues, one should hope that the place becomes a goldmine for its dedicated supporters.

Didcot in the sunshine is a spectacular spot

Sitting just to the south of Oxford on the A34, Didcot became part of the Great Western Railway network in 1839. A major station was built and it became a vital staging post for troop and materiel movements during both World Wars. By the late 1960s car ownership had taken a heavy toll on the station’s usefulness and so a small and simple platform, Didcot Parkway, was retained while most of the rest of the site was given over to commuter car parking.

Fortunately for posterity the main engine shed, several sidings and buildings were saved by the Great Western Society, and now you can while away an afternoon drinking in the sights and sounds of the old GWR.

A decent sized area has been preserved by the Society – this is the entrance

The engine shed is undoubtedly the main attraction at Didcot

One rather striking addition to the displays is the wartime air raid shelter – which also provides a welcome respite from whatever the weather is throwing at you on any given day. It’s a very solid fortification – and rightly so, as railway lines were a valuable target to both sides.

Outside the railwaymen’s air raid shelter

Inside the wartime bunker

Unsurprisingly, Dicot has been used by a plethora of production companies. Everything from Inspector Morse to Sherlock Holmes and about forty thousand wartime dramas and kids TV shows. At the moment the Society is plugging the fact that the locomotive shed was used as Moscow’s main station in the recent remake of Anna Kerenina, with Jude Law and Keira Knightley.

If you’ve watched anything with old trains in it… Didcot was probably involved

Here are some of the many artefacts that caught my eye. At a fiver per adult entry won’t break the bank, but do bear in mind that the car park is extortionate, being intended for commuter use. That said, if you visit on the weekend and pack the car with children then it gets considerably more cost-effective.

Period luggage and accessories make a nice feature

Some of the First Class travellers’ essentials

GWR was your passport to the Welsh Riviera

The main event is the locomotive collection, many of which still steam and go through their paces on open days

During World War 2 the railways took on a dour look but performed vital service

After World War 2 the ‘Big Four’ railway lines – GWR, LMS, LNER and Southern were nationalised and became British Railways, launching 1000 jokes about poor catering

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Now that’s some locomotion

Doing a little more about trains seemed to be a good idea. So what could be more in keeping of a place at the S&G than the beautiful, streamlined LMS Coronation Class locomotives – the most powerful ever to have turned a wheel on the British network…

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Power is one thing – and that came in the form of around 3,300hp twinned with astonishing torque from its four cylinder engine, which saw the valve gear driving the outside valves directly and the inside valves via rocking shafts in William Stanier’s design. But it’s the fabulous art deco lines of these locomotives, from the pen of the chief draughtsman at the LMS works at Derby, Tom Coleman, which really defined the type.

The first five locomotives, Nos. 6220–6224, were built in 1937 at the LMS works in Crewe. They were streamlined and painted in the rich blue of the Caledonian Railway with its rakish silver piping to match the coaches of the Coronation Scot express service from Euston to Glasgow that was to be the principal service for the breed.

The speed with which express services could make the run from London to Scotland delivered enormous prestige to the two competing lines – LMS to the west and the London and North Eastern line to the east. LNER had hogged the limelight with the Flying Scotsman but the sleek new Coronation class attained 114mph on test and would complete its scheduled journey in just six and a half hours, stopping just once at Carlisle for crew change and to pick up and set down passengers.

LMS adverts proclaimed the strength and speed of the Coronation Class

LMS adverts proclaimed the strength and speed of the Coronation Class

Impressive though the speeds attained by the Coronation class were, they also ended the era of high speed demonstrations after it proved rather difficult to rein in the big beasts in order to negotiate mundane but potentially treacherous sections of track. A white knuckle ride awaited passengers on the 114mph run when they reached Crewe and were unable to slow down to the required 50mph, staying on the rails but causing chaos in the restaurant car and kitchen.

The second five locomotives of the class, Nos. 6225–6229, were also streamlined but their elegant lines were not painted blue and silver, but rather the traditional LMS hue of crimson lake with gold horizontal stripes. The problem was that the benefits of the wrap-around streamlined body of the Coronation class were only felt above 90mph. At normal speeds and in the maintenance sheds, the fabulous styling was simply a hindrance.

The Coronation class eventually totalled 38 locomotives, which served through World War 2 and through until the last was retired in 1964. They were shorn of their beautiful streamlining and painted in rather more plebeian liveries – wartime black without coachlines and later black and green under British Railways operation – but their character endured and enchanted successive generations.

After the abandonment of steam, three of these fabulous engines were preserved and one, No. 6229 Duchess of Hamilton, was recently returned to her full streamlined glory. She resides in the National Railway Museum in York and remains a thrilling sight more than 75 years after her debut.

The Duchess of Hamilton today

The Duchess of Hamilton today

Watercress Line goes back in time

In a fit of feeling that perhaps we were, as a family, ignoring the wonders of steam we went to the Watercress Line’s ‘War on the Line’ event a couple of years ago. It’s one of the highlights of the year for the – ahem – army of re-enactors who spend their weekends in all weathers getting themselves all dolled up as servicemen and women and scaring small children with their impromptu renditions of Chattanooga Choo-Choo.

War on the Line is an annual weekend-long festival

War on the Line is an annual weekend-long festival

The Watercress Line runs through four immaculately restored stations between Alton and Alresford in Hampshire and features a number of specialist events, from Thomas & Friends for the youngsters to real ale weekends for chaps with a fondness for sandals and facial topiary. Or maybe Inspector Morse. However, for one weekend each year the entire line is given over to the sights and sounds of the Home Front in 1939-45.

And I mean the whole line…

Now come on - you don't see that every day

Now come on – you don’t see that every day

You never know who will be on your carriage

You never know who will be on your carriage

Once you’ve accepted that the 21st Century got left behind in the car park, things soon become startlingly normal, being back in the mid-1940s. One starts to wonder whether any of the people around you own a television. Or a pair of jeans. The thing is that after going to all the trouble of getting kitted out to the enth degree of accuracy, the allure of modern dress must dwindle significantly.

For one weekend a year, the trains are about the least historic thing on view

For one weekend a year, the trains are about the least historic thing on view

The ideal spot for a bacon buttie and cup of Rosie Lee

The ideal spot for a bacon buttie and cup of Rosie Lee

On our visit the American GIs were far and away the most numerous of all the social groups sculling around the Hampshire countryside. Perhaps it’s the desire to be over-sexed and over-paid, or the popularity of Saving Private Ryan. All that can be sure is that every member of the re-enactment congregation is casting an informed eye over their companions and quick to spot the slightest faux pas.

Lunch at the NAAFI wagon

Lunch at the NAAFI wagon

Shopping for those essential little details or a whole new outfit

Shopping for those essential little details or a whole new outfit

For anyone thinking of going to the Goodwood Revival, the dedication of the visitors to the Watercress Line is a salutary lesson. Not much here came from eBay or a joke shop. In fact one does feel a touch concerned in the summer sunshine that the pervading scent of mothballs might suddenly ignite into a ten mile long fireball…

Spivs selling nylons and other black market goodies are popular

Spivs selling nylons and other black market goodies are popular

Many photo opportunities are to be had at an event like this

Many photo opportunities are to be had at an event like this

Ryan's privates need saving again, I see...

Ryan’s privates need saving again, I see…

Going to an event like this and not being in period schmutter doesn’t feel altogether odd. Everyone’s just pleased to see you, delighted if you take an interest and getting on with getting on with their weekend. The Watercress Line is an astonishing venue because it filters out pretty well everything that you might expect of modern day-to-day life over such a vast expanse of this green and pleasant land.

I don't know where you get them from but, yes, I want one.

I don’t know where you get them from but, yes, I want one.

In case you were wondering, there are trains too

In case you were wondering, there are trains too

At every station there are things to see

At every station there are things to see

It really is a fantastic day out, with not a stick-on moustache in sight. Why not pop over to the Watercress Line and book your tickets for this year’s show? You never know where it might take you…

The jitterbug club stops for tea

The jitterbug club stops for tea

SAS call in for a cheap day return

SAS call in for a cheap day return

Knackered WAAF takes time out at the end of the day

Knackered WAAF takes time out at the end of the day

Splendid entertainment

Slightly off topic but what a brilliant documentary the BBC pulled out of the bag in its recent effort The Flying Scotsman: A Rail Romance.

A little bit of diversity at the S&G

A little bit of diversity at the S&G

Of course we are all aware of the apple green machine’s enduring beauty but, not being a fully paid-up member of the coal-fired brigade, the history of the old girl has passed me by. It was always the one engine I hoped might one daygrace my modest Hornby layout as a child, but Dad insisted that we ran the GWR rolling stock he remembered from his school hols… as he was footing the bill it seemed churlish to deny him that, but one couldn’t help but pass a lingering eye over the bright, shiny Scotsman.

Doubtless a real expert would have been left exasperated by its omissions and inaccuracies, but for a layman the programme was deeply satisfactory. There are 17 hours left to watch it on the iPlayer, otherwise bonne chance with finding a re-run in the recesses of satellite broadcasting. It will be worth the effort…

What a corker!

What a corker!