Aspects of the Great Western
13 March 2000
Peter signed on with the GWR at Old Oak Common as
an apprentice on the mechanical side. He then moved to the civil
engineering side and made his way through the system to finish in the
British Railway Board HQ as head of welding.
He promised a surfeit of chocolate and cream and didn't disappoint his audience
We started with a view of the Metropolitan line at
Kings Cross station and a 9700 class condensing locomotive appearing out
of the tunnel. This was taken 14 years after nationalisation but the
engine was still sporting its GWR logo. We moved to Paddington on the
Metropolitan Railway which still exhibits much of the Victorian styling.
Paddington Station itself still proudly showing displays its GWR
origins and the Royal Paddington Hotel has much of its original owners
designs. The canopy over platforms 11-13 still has the crest of the GWR
showing on its girders. Paddington is often called "Brunel's Cathedral".
The architecture was intended, like a cathedral, to encourage people
to go in, with no dark areas - in many ways it is the Victorian
equivalent of a modern airport. Like a cathedral, it has its monuments,
including the Jaggar memorial to the war dead below the directors
balcony (Jagger also designed the Wellington memorial). In total 1312
GWR staff lost their lives in the wars.
Peter noted that while there are nine different
liveries for HSTs shown in his slides of the BR era, there was only one
GWR livery. However, we started along the GWR mainline with a Eurotunnel
train on tour round country hauled by class 47 "Sir Daniel Gooch".
We also saw a "King" leaving Paddington in modern days which is
virtually the same photograph as could have been taken 60 years ago.
As we left Paddington, Peter made a diversion to
"Mousehole" tunnel - previously called "Cape of Good Hope" tunnel. It
fell into disuse and was used for trials of long welded rail.
We stopped next at Slough Station with its wonderful
fishscale roofs. The building is Grade 1 listed. The station is
little changed from Victorian days and was built to broad gauge
dimensions. A stuffed dog on display on the platform still collects
£250 per year at Slough for the Railway Orphans.
Taplow station is a nugget of Brunel Victoriana. It
has altered little from Brunel's day and was originally the terminus of
the GWR. Although it has the date 1884 on the canopy, this is not the
original date of the building just the date of the quadrupling of the
line at this point.
Not far away, Maidenhead bridge is still the
flattest brick arch bridge in the world. Through Sonning cutting there
are several elegant bridges originally built just to carry foot paths.
At Reading, we see the slip coach in operation. The
GWR, and subsequently BR, kept slip coaches in operation until the
1960s. Further west, the railway passes over the Thames five times
between Maidenhead and Oxford. All of these bridges are unaltered, now
carrying HSTs instead of much slower steam engines.
The Didcot power station now dominates the
countryside. Peter tells us there are 1082 steps to the top of the
chimney - he has personally counted them! Didcot is now well know as a
working museum - and a return to brass and copper. The GW Society's
first purchased engine was 1466 0-4-2T, which worked the autocars, in
many ways the predecessors of modern multiple units. The oldest loco at
Didcot is the Wantage Tramway engine No 5. It also is the home for the
only Churchward engine still extant.
Peter showed us a photograph of a small Prairies
with an Ocean Saloon carriage, which at 9ft 6ins width exceeds Railtrack
standards. These carriages had blue axle boxes indicating mineral oil
lubrication. The mixed traffic Prairie tanks were originally built to
show that steam could compete with electric. In contrast, the 2-8-0
goods engines were built with low speed power in mind. They regularly
hauled the "long Tom" - 2000 tons of loco coal for Old Oak Common. They
could also run fast. Peter once was on the footplate of one which, when
deputising for a failed engine, kept the passenger timings for a
13-coach train from Paddington to South Wales. This was impressive,
however an empty coal train were more difficult because they had so much
air drag. A Mogul in being rebuilt for 2001 steaming. A Saint is being
restored and a single chimney King is also being rebuilt.
The original broad gauge Firefly was cut up
by Churchward after being on a pedestal at Swindon but a brand new
replica is now being built. The originals ran at up to 80mph in the
1880s even with its Gab valve gear (like Lion) which cannot be notched
up. There were no brakes on the engine, just the train - but the new
one will have brakes on the tender for safety purposes. It should be
running in 18-24 months.
To allow running of Firefly there is a mixed
broad and standard gauge track already in place. The rail is mounted on
longitudinal transoms, which makes the track very resilient - but
caused the engines to suffer from the vibration. A fishplate/chair
junction from longitudinal to transverse sleepering was shown. These
were about to be scrapped having been recovered from a site in the
South-West, but a very quick-witted dealer saw them and telephoned the
Society - they were rapidly snapped up. The transfer shed illustrates
the complex track needed to ensure that the broad gauge and standard
gauge are at the right side. The Australians used exactly the same
design in handling their mixed gauge. An famous picture from the
Illustrated London News of "change of gauge" brought about the
standardisation of gauge. The Didcot layout has replica signalling,
both main line and ground signals, stop blocks, Signal Box, and
parachute water tank.
It is not all steam engines at Didcot; the AEC cars
are represented. With its 7 litre diesel engine, it could travel up to
70mph, often working in multiple. The wagon collection includes special
vans, banana, insulated fish vans. We must also remember that it was
from Didcot that the APT1 set the British speed record.
We moved to Swindon in mixed gauge days, which also
showed the complications of this form of track. The national monuments
centre is now housed in the offices of Swindon Loco Works which are
themselves listed buildings. The buildings have base reliefs of early
GWR engines, the reliefs originally being incorporated into Gloucester
sheds. A shot of the works after closure shows how well it was lit by
the north-light roof. The Swindon works had a number of war memorials
which unfortunately disappeared when the works came down - if anyone
know where they are Peter would like to know. It was thought in its time
to be the biggest assembly plant in Europe. It had a complex system of
subterrainian walkway to separate people from the workings. The
Swindon hooters could be heard 10 miles away. When the retail park was
opened, they tried to get the hooter to work, but despite using 3
compressors and a reservoir, they only just managed to get a peep out of
We considered the class 47xx, which comprised big
2-8-0 engines which easily kept time during night-time coal-traffic
work. Peter would like to rebuild one if he wins the pools. The gas
turbine Metro-Vic and Brown-Boverie "Kerosene Castles" also went through
Swindon works. Although they had two cabs they could only work one
way, because the exhaust would be sucked into the intake if they tried
to go through Box Tunnel. Kestral was effectively the first of the
diesel class 47 - many of which were worked on at Swindon. The diesel
hydraulic (the Hymech) was the first 100mph diesel. They were designed
with the advice of the Design Council. The design based on the German
system, but the UK ones ran much greater mileage. The diesel hydraulic
class 14 shunters and Wickham cars showed how the aesthetic standards
had slipped since the Hymek days. The last stock built at Swindon was
the Waterloo and City stock. A shop became the dismantling shop in the
The GWR was still in the vanguard with the
introduction of the HSTs. Peter travelled on the prototype at over
125mph. It was also from Swindon that Peter travelled on City of Truro
down the Newbury line, but at a more leisurely pace.
We then travelled by way of Box tunnel, Bristol east
yard cutting and to Bristol. Here, the original station roof is being
restored with a heritage grant. The "new" station was built on a curve
to avoid intimidating the passenger - in effect you can only see part of
the station from the platforms. The Blue Pullman, which was introduced
on the Bristol-Paddington line, had a lot of GWR input and had a ride
which was excellent in the cab - an old 3d piece would stay standing on
the cab console for 15-20 miles.
We moved down the Bristol and Exeter to Starcross.
The atmospheric railway was one of Brunel's failures. Although it had
the advantage of centralised power, but the technology of his day wasn't
up to it - if only he had had electricity! Nevertheless, Didcot is
attempting to rebuild a short section of atmospheric line for
Now across Dawlish Warren to Dainton and into
Plymouth. Most of the viaducts we encounter from here were originally
wooden trestles. A large diesel depot was positioned at Laira. Further
west, the Tamar bridge is on of the most elegant of Brunel's bridges.
In the middle of the Royal Albert bridge is the 251 milepost, measured
via Box and Devonport - not the direct route which is about 30 miles
less. Peter has inspected to bridge close up and can confirm that it is
good for another 100 years. The title "I.K. Brunel Engineer 1859" can
be seen on its towers - although Brunel didn't survive to see it
finished. It is possible to walk over the upper tubes, which have a 15
inch high handrail. The inside is dry and in good repair. There are
weepholes at the bottom which have the effect of a pinhole camera which
show the outside girders. Peter showed a number of photographs of the
bridge, taken from unusual angles.
Now towards South Wales, via Pilling. Here, the
tunnels are at different heights, designed specifically so that the
loaded coal trains had an easier grade out of the cutting. The Severn
Tunnel still has the "Great Spring", which is of sweet water despite it
being under the estuary.
Further north is the Sharpness (Severn) bridge.
Nearby, the Chepstow bridge was the original predecessor of the Saltash
Bridge. Further along the South Wales lines, the Cromline Viaduct was
the highest viaduct in the UK.
We stop to see Cardiff Central station, which was
the first to have bilingual signs. A visit to South Wales just after
steam days, wouldn't be complete without a visit to Di-Woodhams yard at
Barry. Peter showed a number of photographs of engines awaiting rescue.
Down the South Wales main line we find the well known flying
buttresses, inserted into a cutting to prevent mining subsidence.
Unfortunately, they had only 1 inch clearance between the chimney and
roof. The only way some of the larger engines could get through was by
stopping just before, filling the boiler will water and then creeping
Peter finished his steam slides with views of the Vale of Rheidol line.
As he said "the GWR may be Gone with Regret but the name lives on".
In answer to on interesting question from the
audience, Peter explained the origin of the odd 1/4 inch in the broad
gauge? The original engines came down from Birmingham with exactly 7ft
gauge wheels. There was only a few miles of track all of which was at
7ft - and of course it wouldn't fit. Brunel consider it cheaper to
re-drill the track than rebuild the engine. Peter has found baulk rail
with the bolt holes widened giving credence to this explanation.