15 January, 2012
A little bit of heaven in Leicestershire
As a young boy in the 1950s, I saw just enough of revenue-service, working steam to know what I’d be missing for the rest of my life. In the Sixties, I dreamed of time travel, or at least travel to Britain where steam still ruled. Given my available resources at the time, the prospects for achieving time or trans-Atlantic travel were equally realistic. By age 16, I’d saved enough from a summer job at the post office to give serious consideration to traveling to the UK, but the “Fifteen Guinea Special” had come and gone and steam was dead. I went to Chicago.
Since then, Britain’s heritage railways have made the pursuit of time travel redundant. The first time I set foot in Loughborough Central on the Great Central, “the UK’s only double-track mainline heritage railway,” I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I quickly determined that I wasn’t dead, but that I was most certainly in heaven. (I've always suspected that heaven would be filled with the aroma of coal smoke and exhausting steam; the clunk of interlocking levers, and the clank of Walschaerts and Stephenson valve gear.) And so it’s been with every heritage railway encounter since Jim Brown introduced me to my first, which just happened to be the Great Central.
Apparently, heaven is also subject to bone-chilling cold. At least it was on the frosty morning that Ian and I stood on the Beeches Road bridge, looking and listening in absolute awe as King Arthur class 4-6-0 30777 Sir Lamiel marched out of Loughborough Central with a seven-car rake of Mk 1 carriages that formed the 10:15 departure for Leicester North. Swathed in steam, the “Scotch Arthur,” turned out of the North British Locomotive Works in Glasgow as Southern Railway E777 in 1925, miraculously brought to life impossible boyhood dreams.
We could still hear the beat of Lamiel’s distant exhaust as we adjourned to Loughborough Central to warm by an open coal fire and observe what has become ritual of every GCR visit: breakfast in the station café. The heritage railway experience is not one of isolated performances, but of total immersion.
My own heritage railway experience was about to take on an added dimension. Ian had made arrangements for the visiting Canadian to ride the footplate of Sir Lamiel upon its return from Leicester North.
Happily, vintage diesels are also a part of the heritage railway scene, and the GCR timetable for the day included equipment cycles handled, not just by Sir Lamiel, but a diesel set with BRCW Type 2 D5401 and Sulzer Type 4 “Peak” D123 top-and-tailed on a seven-car formation, as well as a vintage DMU set composed Metropolitan-Cammell cars BR E50321 and 51427.
The diesel highlight of the day, however, caught me by surprise. I’d seen BR 37255 around the GCR on previous visits and presumed that the bedraggled Class 37 wearing faded remnants of British Rail departmental “engineer’s grey” was a derelict, a parts spare, or maybe a hopeful candidate for future preservation. So I gave the old girl little more than a passing glance when we encountered her on a siding across from the Quorn & Woodhouse station. That is, until the low rumble of an engine turning over caught my ear. I turned toward the rough looking beast in time to see grey exhaust boiling from the stacks. The engine caught hold, the stacks cleared and the air was filled with the glorious racket of an English Electric prime mover in full stride.
The man prowling around the 37255 proved to be the owner of the locomotive. He'd come by to warm the old girl up in anticipation of a cold winter night. Within minutes, I was realizing a long-held ambition: climbing into the cab of a Class 37, and lingering the engine room in the company of a very much alive English Electric 12CSVT. The 47-year-old Type 3, released from English Electric’s Vulcan Foundry on January 6, 1965 as BR D6955, might be rough on the outside, but she’s tough on the inside. Reportedly a good runner, No. 37255 is employed in permanent way service on GCR and had in fact been out on a work train earlier in the week.
Back at Loughborough Central, we caught the last train of the day for a turn to Leicester North and back behind Sir Lamiel. At the close of a perfect day, I settled into the plush seats of BR 4982, a Wolverton-built Mk I “Tourist Second Open," watched wisps of steam drift past a Leicestershire sunset framed in the coach window, listened to the rapid exhaust and sharp whistle of the King Arthur class 4-6-0 up front, and reflected the incredible good fortune of such a day.
On our return to Loughborough, we followed the engine to the shed and savoured the sights, sounds, and smells of working steam as the crew dropped the fire, shovelled cinders from the smoke box, and put good Sir Lamiel to bed.
Just another day in paradise.
While Sir Lamiel slumbered on Loughborough shed, I shivered on the platform of the nearby Midland Main Line station. Standing in the red neon glow of the giant sign marking the legendary Brush Traction Falcon Works, I pondered the generations of steam, diesel, and electric locomotives turned out of the historic shop (established in 1865 as Henry Hughes & Co., Falcon Works) while waiting for a London-bound East Midlands Voyager.
Soon enough, East Midlands 222011 came along, and hustled me up to London St. Pancras in time for a late dinner at the Euston Flyer, dessert at the Doric Arch, and a short walk to Euston to catch the Caledonian Sleeper to Edinburgh.
“Platform 15, for the 23:27 Caledonian Sleeper, calling at Carstairs, Motherwell, Glasgow Central, and Edinburgh Waverly …” The station announcement for the so-called Lowland Sleeper was being broadcast as I made my way through the still-crowded Euston concourse to the 16-car train waiting on Platform 15.
Collingwood, the Class 90 electric that had worked my Inverness-bound train a few nights earlier, stood just behind the consist, having brought the Caledonian equipment into the station. On the head-end, sister 90036, still dressed in BR Railfreight Distribution two-tone grey with a giant EWS herald pasted to her flanks, stood ready to make the overnight run to Scotland.
The lounge car was quiet when I arrived. But not for long. By departure time, ScotRail 6707 seemed more like a neighbourhood pub than a BR-built Mk 2F. Space on the car’s comfortable leather sofas was at a premium, the dining tables were crowded, and the car was abuzz with lively conversation.
“Right away!” with a shrill whistle and a wave of the station porter’s baton, we were off to Scotland. I had no concern to be in Edinburgh, just an irrepressible desire to make one more trip on this marvelous train.
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