Friday, April 27, 2007

Another one of those boring posts about trains

Okay, if you're still reading and weren't put off the title, you must either be as much an anorak as me or just curious...but I did warn you!
Last Saturday I went to the Bluebell Railway in East Sussex. I'd been wanting to go for a couple of years but for one reason or another other things have come up and there just hasn't been the opportunity. What convinced me to go was some photos a railway buff friend of mine sent of their visit last summer. Still it has taken me to April this year to find the time and opportunity to go.

The last time I visited the Bluebell was at least 20 years ago, if not longer. I remember little about it to be honest, other than it was a warm sunny day and bits of the station at Horsted Keynes. Don't remember anything of actually going on the train!

The Bluebell, along with the Tallylyn Railway in Wales, were the torch-bearers for the preservation movement. I think I am right in saying that the Bluebell line was first established as a preserved railway in the late 1960s and was the first railway of its kind in the UK. It is currently the only standard gauge heritage line in the country which is entirely steam operated. The line itself represents a typical country branch line of the 1950s/1960s.

I am not certain of this but I understand the Bluebell was part of a through route from East Grinstead to Lewes. The line currently runs for about 8 miles from Sheffield Park via Horsted Keynes to Kingscote, although the line to East Grinstead is currently being relaid and a branch is being built to Ardingly, near Haywards Heath. The link to East Grinstead will presumably provide direct access to the National Rail network. Currently the 'missing link' from East Grinstead to Kingscote is provided by a bus, which runs when the railway is operating.

Kingscote station, like the others on the line, has been lovingly and carefully restored. Posters advertise excursions by 'British Railways' to the coast and period advertising and station furniture add to the feel of stepping back in time. Even the tickets are hand stamped card with a choice between First Class and Third Class. There was no Second or the more politically correct 'Standard' class in those days!

The highlight of any visit to a railway like this is the locomotives and the trains. I am not as knowledgeable about steam locos as I would like to be and unlike modern trains they don't carry class numbers. I can pretty much recognise a Black 5, a 'Terrier', Bullied Pacific, A4 Pacific and a few other types but other than that, I am as lost as the next non-railway person! The two locos in use on my visit were a Class 4 Tank, built at Brighton in 1957 and returned to steam in 2001 and a London Brighton & South Coast Railway Class E4 Radial Tank built in 1898. Btw, I got this info from the Bluebell's excellent web site. Both currently operate in British Railways lined black livery, which I think is rather attractive and would have been a common livery for steam locos in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Bluebell is home to a large collection of ex-Southern Railway locos and there are a number of my favourites on the line - the Bullied Pacifics - both in rebuilt and unrebuilt form. These are attractive looking locos and hauled some of the most prestigious trains of their day like The Pines Express and Bournemouth Belle.

On static display outside the shed at Sheffield Park was this fine looking locomotive, a Maunsell 'U' class loco, 1638. Reading her history on the Bluebell web site reveals that she was for a time based at Fratton depot, Portsmouth until closure in 1959. As you can see the loco has been lovingly restored to full working order and this was completed in 2006, more than 40 years after she was originally withdrawn from service! It took over two decades to restore this loco to full working order and it impresses me that dedicated people like the volunteers at the Bluebell invest such time and money into restoring these magnificent machines. I will be travelling on a train hauled by a similar looking loco to this in June on a steam-hauled excursion to Kent.

I think most people, especially men even if they are not interested in trains generally, have some sort of fascination or are moved by the sight of a steam locomotive. They are probably the most life-like of machines in many ways and I am always excited at the prospect of travelling on a steam-hauled train. There is a certain magic and nostalgia to the experience and an atmosphere too, hearing the loco puffing away, with long trails of smoke billowing into the distance. Wonderful :-)

Next for this year will be visits to both the Mid-Hants & Swanage Railways and hopefully Nene Valley and Severn Valley too. I am hoping that I'll get to do a couple of diesel galas as well as my real passion along with steam is in heritage diesel locomotives, particularly of the 1970s & 80s.

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