The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA

Last Update

    5 April 2011

Summer Outing to Nene Valley Railway

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On 15th May 2010, ten members of the South of England Group assembled at the Nene Valley Railway for our Summer Outing. Part of the Group arrived at Wansford for the first train of the day – diesel hauled, up to Peterborough. Here we awaited the remainder of the party, most of whom had arrived by rail from London. Our own Martin Sixsmith, who is also a volunteer on the railway and guides groups of visitors, such as us, joined to take us round the sights.

A trip on the train down the line to the main base at Wansford allowed us to sample the delights of this remarkably rural line, bearing in mind that it commences close by the centre of Peterborough and is only 7½ miles long. As we approached Wansford, Martin pointed out one of the lineside mail-bag pick-up/set-down points. This one being on the main line to Peterborough sees less use, other than at gala days. The one we would experience was further along towards Yarwell Junction.

Getting off at Wansford, we had about half an hour to wait before the Rail-Mail train departed, so Martin took us to explore the inside of the signal box.

This is situated on the north side of the railway, sandwiched in a narrow site between the old Great North Road crossing and the bank of the River Nene – indeed it slightly extends over the river. The box boasts a fine selection of levers, only a little foreshortened from the original installation due to the removal of the junction to Stamford, which was closed in 1929. The old formation of the branch is still visible from the 'box as a line of trees heading off into the distance. Where it used to join the NVR there are currently rolling stock sidings. Martin explained that there used to be a separate station on the Stamford line, accessible by a footbridge across the River Nene and a raised causeway across the flood-plain. Parts of the foundations of the footbridge and causeway are still extant. The 'box controls all movements around the vicinity of Wansford and Yarwell Junction, using electric repeaters for the more remote locations.

After a good tour round the 'box it was time to get out of the way while the signalman made arrangements for the arrival of the down service train, hauled by Standard Class 5 No 73050 “City of Peterborough”, a permanent resident of the line.

As we moved off, the public address called out that the mail train would be departing from the opposite platform in about 15 minutes. We made our way in that direction and were met by Brian White, our March speaker, who was leading the demonstration.

The train comprised 5 ex-Royal Mail carriages, including the all-important sorting/despatch carriage.

It was into this that we boarded, in the company of some public passengers, and headed off to Yarwell, hauled by the railway's Brush Type 2 No 31108.

At Yarwell the members of the public de-trained while we remained on board to experience the demonstration from the business-end. Brian thoroughly explained the process so we could understand what was going to happen in the very hectic few seconds of the exchange. We then reversed back toward the tunnel under the A1, and past the exchange apparatus, with the waiting audience. A blast of the horn, accompanied by the bellowing engine and we were on our way, picking up speed rapidly to the demonstration level of around 15 mph. Then in a flash, following Brian's call of “mark”, the bags were swung out, the net lowered and three dull thuds followed. A successful exchange was apparent as two bags bounced neatly on the nets and dropped onto the carriage floor.

During the subsequent two repeat exchanges, Brian and the team explained more about the detail of the equipment and operation. Replacement pouches, for example, are made by a local saddler in the traditional way using buffalo skins. Each costs around £1200, so they tend to be well looked after. The exchanges happen at much lower speeds than the 55 mph which were more typical in normal service operations when the GPO were doing upwards of 2000 exchanges throughout the network each day.

All too soon it was time to welcome our other passengers back on board at Yarwell Junction and head off back to Wansford. Here we made a bee-line for the café to order our meals before the rush arrived. This is housed in the “new” station buildings which were built by the society to replace the original ones on the up side, currently in private hands. The original buildings, which date from the opening of the line in 1845, are now looking decidedly dilapidated. The society is trying to raise the funds needed to buy and preserve them before they fall down.

While the new station is a commendable architectural replica of the original style of building used by the London and Birmingham Railway Company, nothing can substitute for preserving the real past – we wish them well in their efforts.

Suitably refreshed we then moved back to the mail train platform to await the arrival of the service train from Peterborough. Once this was safely in the platform, the No 73050 detached from the front and the Class 31 attached at the rear and, following the brake checks, headed off with the passenger train to Peterborough. Meanwhile, the Standard 5 coupled up to the mail train and we got on-board in anticipation of the spectacle which was awaiting us. Back to Yarwell Junction, but this time we got off along with the other passengers and headed along the track to the observation point near the exchange apparatus.

Soon enough the entire train reversed back past our position and disappeared round the curve.

Once the track team had loaded up the arm with two mail pouches, a wave of a yellow flag was acknowledged by a sharp whistle.

Then some staccato bursts of steam exhaust, rapidly increasing in loudness and frequency, was the prelude to the passing of the train. In the blink of an eye, the bags were exchanged and the train disappeared around the corner back to Yarwell Junction. Two further repeats allowed us to track the operation and see the bits we missed earlier. After all the excitement, we then headed back to the halt as City of Peterborough reversed in the loop and coupled to the train to take us back to Wansford.

A tour of the sheds then followed under Martin's guidance, where we saw the work which is taking place on the railway's steam crane and diesel and steam locomotive fleet. The railway has developed a well appointed workshop with extensive yards so it is rather less cluttered than some other preserved railways.

We were left to our own devices for half an hour or so, to wander around the well-stocked railway's shop and the second-hand books, the latter housed in the static Rail-Mail carriages housed in the bay platform. These raises funds to help preserve and demonstrate the mail train, so is for a very good cause and a number of our party left with some purchases.

On arrival of the service train, we boarded and headed back up the line to Peterborough. Here we bade our farewells to Martin and the other members of the Group, after an enjoyable day out - and it didn't rain once!