On Wednesday 4 May 2011 I had the opportunity to travel on the Gloucestershire and Warwickshire Steam railway north from Toddington to Laverton Halt and back. Although I had previously driven diesel locomotives from Toddington south to Gotherington, this was a new section of line for me: and was at the time being operated essentially as a long siding by railcars and diesel multiple units while steam trains connected Winchcombe and Cheltenham Racecourse, south of the Chicken Curve landslip that has split the GWSR in two.
Given the situation at the time, I was more than happy to join in the rest of the railway preservation movement in offering my financial help to the GWSR in its quest for reunification which, I am very happy to say, was achieved in 2012. In 2015, track is being laid north from Laverton towards Broadway.
Powered vehicles for the occasion were Pressed Steel built Class 117 Driving Motor Second W51382 ( pictured above ) and Driving Motor Brake Second W51339, formerly part of Bristol based Western Region diesel multiple unit set B438 with Trailer Composite Lavatory 59492. This set was later known as 117 313 and was on loan to the GWSR from the Vale of Glamorgan Railway.
The Gloucestershire and Warwickshire Steam Railway also boasted a second Pressed Steel Class 117 DMU set comprising 51365 (DMBS, nearest camera) and 51407 (DMS) which feature the original British Railways DMU livery with “speed whiskers” rather than small yellow end panels. Known as Western Region set B427, as Tyseley based T304 from 1989 and during the latter part of its service career as set 117 204, the power twin DMU was on loan from the Plym Valley Railway.
What became known as British Railways Class 117 diesel multiple units were built by Pressed Steel’s Linwood factory in Scotland – also the birthplace of the famous Glasgow “Blue Train” EMUs – from 1959 to 1961 and were based both on the company’s Class 121 single railcars and similar high density seating diesel multiple units designed and built by BR’s own Derby Works. As such they were built as non-gangwayed vehicles with side doors to each seating bay, passengers in the driving vehicles thus being isolated from the toilets in the central Trailer Composite Lavatory. However, subsequent refurbishment saw the Class 117 vehicles fitted with gangways and they survived late into the 1980s.
Class 117 Driving Motor vehicles were powered by pairs of 150 bhp six-cylindered horizontal BUT / Leyland diesel engines mounted under the floor, with 65 Second Class sets in the DMBS and 89 in the DMS. The unpowered TCL featured 22 First and 48 Second Class seats. Vehicle dimensions were 64′ ( TCL 63′ 10″ ) x 9’3″ and weights were 36 tons for DMBS and DMS and 30 tons for the TCL.
Originally, DMBS ( later Class 117/2 ) numbers were W51332 to W51373, DMS (later Class 117/1) numbers were W51374 to W51415 and TCL (later Class 176) numbers ranged from W59484 to W59522.
Initially allocated to Western Region for work around London, Cardiff and Cornwall, the Class 117s were based at Southall, Cardiff Canton and Plymouth Laira depots although some were to end their working lives around Birmingham and in Scotland. Most of the class became Provincial Services and then Regional Railways assets during BR Sectorisation while the Southall based sets joined Network South East from 1982.
Still in British Rail blue and grey livery in 1985, Bristol based Class 117 set B429 is seen approaching Gloucester from the South West ( left ) and arriving at Platform 1 of the station ( below ) By 1987 however, the Pressed Steel three car set had become Reading based L ( for London ) 429, facelifted internally and repainted in Network South East livery.
From a more local point of view, the picture above was taken before the construction of Metz Way over Windmill Parade and before The Plough Inn was renamed The Great Western. Similarly, notice the BR pattern freight guard’s van and double arrow liveried luggage trolleys in the picture above.
1985 also saw Class 117 DMBS 51368 and DMS 51410 working as a power twin set and painted in chocolate and cream livery to mark the 150th anniversary of the Great Western Railway.
Class 117 set B437 meanwhile comprised DMBS 51338, TCL 59504 and DMS 51380 and was in service earlier in the 1980s. This picture taken at Gloucester just predated the footbridge opening to return Platform 4 – used for parcels traffic from 1966 – for passenger use in 1984. Class 165 Network Turbo units replaced the Class 117s out of Paddington in the early 1990s although it took Class 150 and 153 units rather than four wheeled Class 143s to displace the Pressed Steel machines from the tight curves of the Cornish branch lines. Class 150s and Class 170 Turbostar diesel hydraulic multiple units finally ousted the Class 117s in Scotland around the year 2000 at the same time that Class 150s also took over Silverlink duties around London.
Class 117s – along with fellow first generation DMUs of Classes 115, 116 and 118 – also intensively worked the Birmingham Cross City line from Lichfield Trent Valley to Redditch from 1978 until replaced by Class 323 electric multiple units from 1993. A refurbished first generation DMU – identifiable by a blue striped white livery – is seen above passing ac electric locomotive 87 018 “Lord Nelson” at Birmingham New Street
Although a scenic railway journey is always a joy to experience, one of its frustrations is that you cannot see yourself go by – and this is especially true in the case of viaducts, striding as they do across rivers, streams, roads and sometimes other railways. As such I was particularly pleased to have discovered the Honda Wanderer site of accomplished railway photographer Martin Loader from which the north west facing picture of Stanway Viaduct below was taken.
Emphasising the 210 yard length of the 42′ high 15 arch curving blue brick structure on 2 October 2010 was a train of six maroon Mark 1 carriages hauled by two tone grey 47 376 “Freightliner 1995” with blue liveried 47 105 bringing up the rear. This service, forming part of that year’s Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway Diesel Gala, marked the beginning of regular diesel hauled trains across the 1904 built viaduct which had returned to single line traffic in the Spring of 2010.
Indeed, Stanway Viaduct was a vital part of the Great Western Railway’s Honeybourne to Cheltenham route which not only bypassed the Midland Railway’s Lickey Incline by way of Tyseley, Henley in Arden, Bearley and Stratford Upon Avon but could also funnel in southbound traffic from Hereford and Worcester and Oxfordshire and Warwickshire via Hatton.
From 1 December 1904 until 14 August 1977 Stanway Viaduct carried such varied trains as railcars and auto trains (which served Laverton Halt until its closure in 1960), The Cornishman from Wolverhampton to Penzance, hauled by a Western Region “Castle” until the early 1960s and, in the same era, an endless stream of heavy mineral trains with GWR 2-8-0s or BR 9F 2-10-0s on the front. The last BR movement over the viaduct was a signal & telegraph engineering train which had collected equipment from Toddington.
However, construction of Stanway Viaduct was only completed after arches number 10, 9 and 8 collapsed soon after each other at 0815 on the morning of Friday 13 November 1903. The cause of the collapse was never definitively identified but it was likely to have been a combination of wet weather and ground conditions, workmen taking out the timber supports too early and the type of mortar used.
At the time of the collapse, too, a 14 ton crane was on the viaduct lifting materials from ground level but its driver – named Smith – survived the failure of arch 10 – audible over a mile away according to local newspaper reports – only to be dug out by rescue workers and placed under arch 9 to recover. While Smith was being dug from the rubble of arch 9, arch 8 collapsed but despite having survived twice he later died in Winchcombe Hospital. Three other men died and seven were injured in the catastrophe, although had it happened fifteen minutes later the three arches would also have fallen on a group of railway navvies enjoying breakfast.
According to Audie Baker’s book ‘An illustrated history of the Straford on Avon to Cheltenham Railway’ (Irewell Press, ISBN 1-871608-62-7 – but currently out of print) another man had a most remarkable escape. He was standing near the crane on top of the viaduct when the deck gave way beneath him and grabbed a water pipe running along the top of the viaduct. Suspended in mid-air, he then fell 30′ on to rubble when the pipe broke and he was removed and placed alongside the unfortunate crane driver under the adjacent arch, which then fell on them both. But, unlike Mr Smith, this man survived to work another day.
Under a special dispensation after the opening of the line to Broadway on 1 August 1904 and prior to HMRI inspection, freight trains were allowed to run over the newly rebuilt viaduct at reduced speed to handle seasonal fruit traffic.
Similarly, with great care on 12 November 2005, electro-diesel 73 129 hauled the GWSR’s Permanent Way train on to a new single track that had just been laid down the centre of Stanway Viaduct.
Stanway Viaduct in fact gets its name from Stanway House, a Jacobean Manor located just out of sight to the east of the line from Toddington to Laverton Halt. Nowadays famous for its Charles I era shuffleboard table and the tallest gravity fed fountain the the World, Stanway House passed from the ownership of Tewkesbury Abbey to the Tracy family and their descendants, the Earls of Wemyss. Indeed, this noble family still farms much of the land on the eastern side of the GWSR including the field that hosted the October 2010 Steam and Vintage Rally.
Not only were the Tracy Family – descended from the Emperor Charlemagne – almost unique in owning land in Britain before the Norman Conquest but their earlier home was actually at Toddington and, appropriately enough given that the Class 117 DMUs were built in Scotland, a descendent of David, the Second Earl of Wemyss built his own private railway in Fife.
In 1421 Sir John Wemyss built Wemyss Castle in the Kingdom of Fife while David, the Second Earl of Wemyss ( 1610 to 1679 ) was granted a charter by King Charles II to build a harbour at nearby Methil for the export of coal from mines on the Wemyss estate, some of which stretched out beneath the adjacent Firth of Forth.
In 1879 Randolph G.E. Wemyss, a 21 year old descendent of David, the Second Earl of Wemyss, finalised plans for what was to become known as the Wemyss and Buckhaven Railway. This line, running through the Wemyss estate from Thornton Junction north of Kirkcaldy, was given a Board of Trade certificate in the same year and opened to Buckhaven on 1 August 1881 and to Methil on 5 May 1887. Worked by the North British Railway, this allowed Randolph Wemyss to develop Methil before the Leven Harbour Company succeed in developing Leven as the coal port of the district.
However, by an Act of 26 July 1889, Randolph Wemyss sold the Wemyss and Buckhaven Railway to the North British Railway and gained a seat on the NBR Board having undertaken that coal owners would not support any new coal railways in Fife, unless projected by the NBR, for 21 years and would build none themselves.
Nevertheless, in 1897 Randolph Wemyss announced that he was planning a new line to Methil in competiton to the Wemyss and Buckhaven and in 1899 entered into an agreement whereby the Wemyss Coal Co. Ltd would construct a railway to join lines between Methil and Denbeath Colliery, where the Wemyss Coal Company would, in 1915, install the first pithead baths in Scotland and only the second in the UK. The eventual plan was for traffic coming from Lochhead, Earlseat and Michael Collieries to be dealt with independently of the North British Railway Company.
The actual focal point of the new Wemyss Private Railway was the Baum mechanical coal preparation plant strategically built nearby Methil docks in 1905 and planned to serve all Wemyss Collieries. Remarkably, RGE Wemyss then became concerned that traffic was outgrowing the capacity of Methil Dock and managed to persuade the North British Railway (to whom he had sold the docks) to build a new No. 3 dock. This was opened in 1913, although Randolph Wemyss himself dies in 1908 aged 50 from an illness contracted while serving in the Boer War.
Among the rolling stock of the Wemyss Private Railway was an ex Midland Railway 10 ton brake van very similar to this one modelled in 0 Gauge for Thornbury & South Gloucestershire MRC’s “Severn Mill” layout as displayed at Hucclecote in 2011 and pictured left next to a North Eastern Railway cattle wagon – once a common sight on the railways of Britain when cattle and other farm animals were taken long distances from their home farms to market.
At the outbreak of World War I, shipments from Methil were considerably curtailed. Later on in the early 1920’s the Wemyss Coal Co. Ltd put through a last and major project by sinking a much deeper shaft at Michael Colliery in order to be able to work much lower-lying seams under the Firth of Forth. This opened in 1932 and became the deepest and most productive pit in Scotland producing nearly 1,000,000 tons annually until 1967 when a disastrous fire caused the pit to be finally abandoned. The Wemyss Private Railway, which had remained independent after the Wemyss pits had been Nationalised in 1947, closed on 26 June 1970.
During the 1960s the Wemyss Private Railway operated large fleet of 0-6-0T and 0-6-0ST locomotives including 0-6-0T Number 17, Andrew Barclays of Kilmarnock 2017 of 1935, seen on in monochrome on the WPR above – and Hunslet designed Austerity 15, pictured left on the Nene Valley Railway. Acquired by the WPR in 1964 from E G Steels of Hamilton – who in turn bought it from the Ministry of Defence – Number 15 was one of only 13 Austerities built by Andrew Barclay of Kilmarnock, bearing their works number 2183 of 1943.
In fact number 15 went back to Kilmarnock for overhaul but did little work before the line closed in 1970, after which it next turned a wheel on the Gloucestershire and Warwickshire Steam Railway in 2007!
After an extensive rebuild and equipment with air and vacuum brakes, Andrew Goodman’s 0-6-0ST was repainted in the lined brown livery of the Wemyss Private Railway and on Sunday 24 May 2009 was named “Earl David” after both the Second Earl of Wemyss described above and the Twelfth Earl of Wemyss (1912 to 2008) who owned the Wemyss Private Railway in its final days.
Happily WPR 17 has also now been preserved on Scotland’s Strathspey Railway ( pictured in colour above) while WPR 0-6-0T 20 – Andrew Barclay 2068 of 1939 – has similarly found a home north of the Border on the Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway. Meanwhile 1944 vintage William Bagnall built WPR 0-6-0ST 16 – pictured in black and white left – is at the Caledonian Railway in Brechin.
The nameplate of WPR 15 was unveiled by the current and Thirteenth Earl of Wemyss – James Donald Charteris, previously known by the courtesy title Lord Neidpath – whose daughter – the Honourable Mary Olivia Charteris – continued the family connection with railways by appearing advertisements for the fashion house Louis Vuitton at Oxford Circus tube station on London Underground’s Central, Victoria and Bakerloo lines.