When I first arrived as a volunteer at Bewdley Station, more than thirty years ago, I was immediately hooked. It was like nothing that I had ever experienced before – the camaraderie, sense of history, hard graft, team working and a feeling of being part of something that was very special.
In the early days, I spent most of my time sanding down and painting doors, station signs, awnings and cast iron guttering, all in the original Great Western Railway colours of light stone, dark stone and maroon. I also helped the more experienced workers with bigger jobs such as repairing the station roof, refurbishing the waiting room and renovating the wooden footbridge. We visited disused railway stations or derelict buildings to recover artifacts from a bygone age. I sometimes romanticized about a society that I imagined was very different to recession hit Britain in the early 1980s. The enamel signs advertised products from an era when life was cosier and simpler. The brown leather suit cases stacked on the wooden platform trolleys, and the posters of the English Riviera, conjured up images of people flocking en masse to the coast during the factory fortnight. The large silver milk churns told a story of self-sufficient communities living from fresh local produce transported along this rural branch line.
The two main stations were at either end of the Severn Valley Railway (SVR) – Bridgnorth in Shropshire and Bewdley in Worcestershire. This was before the line was extended to Kidderminster. Before the Bewdley bypass was built. Actually, it was before so many things, and when I think about it, I am now reflecting on a time in my life that is about as far back for me now as the Golden Age of Steam was then, although of course the age of steam was long before I was born! I thought Bewdley was the more impressive station and had become the head office for the SVR, however, Bridgnorth had been part of the SVR for longer, boasted the biggest collection of steam engines and was home to some of the most influential characters on the railway. It wasn’t until my first Bewdley versus Bridgnorth football game that I came into contact with them. In a field beside the Ship Inn at Highley – a neutral station and venue – I scored the winning goal for Bewdley. The evening that followed was fantastic! The steam engine puffed gently through the midnight valley with a single coach in which the victorious team drank homemade ale and sang rousing songs that had me smiling for days and weeks to come!
I often felt that the best moments were when the public had gone home. Strolling around the station late at night could be a solitary and yet stirring experience. The moonlight reflection in the polished engine that was gently hissing and creaking as it cooled down from a hard days work. The relative peace and quiet would be gently broken by the dull thud of ash dropping from the engine into the concrete pit between the tracks. The gas lamps from the station and the signal boxes would flicker in the mist to create a sense of anticipation of the train that may soon arrive.
Early mornings were special too, although I saw less of them! Watching the engine pouring out smoke as the sun and boiler pressure gradually rose was a real privilege. At this time of day, the air was fresh and slightly chilled, and this created the perfect environment for your senses to take in the smells of the railway – oil and tar soaked wooden sleepers, log fires, breakfast being cooked on the engine footplate and milky tea in large enamel mugs! And sometimes, rather than just day dreaming about all this stuff, I actually helped out, perhaps by polishing the engine with an oily rag so that it was ready to impress the enthusiastic visitors that arrived each day.
And this is what I loved about the railway – it was full of special moments. On one occasion, when the trains were not running, we used the pump trolley to travel up the line to Arley. Like a scene from the 1960s film The Great St. Trinians Train Robbery, four of us seesawed our way through the magnificent scenery, the highlight being the spectacular crossing of Victoria Bridge with the river flowing from far below to the forest that dominates the horizon. From what I can remember, we used this to travel to Arley when we were helping to build Santa’s grotto – a magical experience that took about three weekends to complete! This quiet old country station with it real coal fires, crackly tannoy system for the Christmas carols and its slow pace of life was the perfect setting for the festive season.
Later in the winter, we had heavy snow and travelled to Highley with the pannier tank 5764. I can’t remember all of the details, but I do remember riding on the footplate and helping to clear the snow so that the little engine could make the six-mile journey north.
But perhaps the most fascinating times were when the film crews arrived to shoot their latest movie, sitcom or documentary. The BBC 1980s sitcom Sorry! springs to mind. Rising up above Bewdley station on one side was a sandstone railway cutting, topped with fields and trees. There was a perch half way up where I would sit admiring the view with my mates. Looking to the right, we could see Bewdley North signal box, the viaduct, the church and the roof tops of this charming Georgian town. Turning round slightly we could see the picket fencing that straddled platform one and the wooden footbridge across to the platforms below. Directly opposite us was the Victorian double fronted station with its barge boards pointing to the sky and framing the centerpiece of the film set. Then turning further to the left, we could see the canopy over platforms two and three, the sidings that housed various coaches, engines and freight wagons. And in the distance beyond all this, we could see the water towers, Bewdley South signal box and the south viaduct. From our comfortable spot away from the action, we could sit back, relax and watch the crew and actors create what would be a rather short scene in the thirty minute episode. An autograph from Ronnie Corbett – one of the most popular TV personalities of the time – was a nice end to my day.
There were many of these filming occasions. During the making of an episode of the BBC children’s drama, God’s wonderful Railway, we watched excitedly as the experts set alight to some wooden freight trucks just south of the station limits. This was to be part of a dramatic war scene, with the engine pulling the burning wagons out into the distance, and although I have a faint recollection that this was never shown on TV, it was still an amazing night-time spectacle to watch.
The film crews brought their trucks full of paraphernalia – every detail was taken care of and nothing was left to chance. They had equipment to generate the right amount of light, rain and – perhaps most surprisingly of all – steam! And so the soft light from the gas lamps would reflect in the shiny wet platform bricks on which the lone actress stood in the swirling steam to create a scene evocative of postwar Britain, or at least that’s how I remember it!
I had some great friends up at the railway and I am grateful to them for this special time in my life. One summer, three of us went on a breath-taking whistle-stop tour of England’s railways from Yorkshire in the north to Devon in the south with lots of camping, drinking and fun all crammed into one week, a mini metro and a tent!
The SVR provided me with so many memories that I could have written about. Whether it was chasing off trespassers trying to vandalise our rolling stock, extinguishing line side fires on hot summer days, working Bewdley South signal box in the school holidays or simply watering the hanging baskets, there was always something to do which gave my life purpose and meaning.
Nevertheless, after three or four years, my enthusiasm for railways began to wane and it wasn’t long before my membership and involvement had ended.
Fourteen years later, I returned to the SVR for a footplate experience that was unforgettable. Whilst driving one of these engines, you learn what momentum really feels like; after slamming the regulator shut, the train just keeps on rolling – an absolutely sensational feeling of power!
© Chris Robinson 2013. All rights reserved.