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Posted by: mike on Apr 11, 2014

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delightLatest

Kennet & Avon Canal Bruce Tunnel west portal

Kennet & Avon Canal Bruce Tunnel west portal inscription

Just as the proprietors of the Kennet & Avon Canal named the Dundas Aqueduct at Limpley Stoke after the company chairman, Charles Dundas, 1st Baron Amesbury, so they named the tunnel at Savernake after the local landowner Thomas Brudenell-Bruce, 1st Earl of Ailesbury (1729-1814).

Bruce Tunnel wasn’t in fact needed.  It was built solely because the Earl declined to have a deep cutting splitting his estate.

It's 502 yards long, with a wide bore to take Newbury barges, and has no towpath.

Above the west entrance portal is a stone panel carved with an elaborate dedication by Benjamin Lloyd, the canal company’s mason:

The Kennet and Avon Canal Company
Inscribe this TUNNEL with the Name of
BRUCE
In Testimony of the Gratitude
for the uniform and effectual Support of
The Right honourable THOMAS BRUCE EARL of AILESBURY
and CHARLES LORD BRUCE his Son
through the whole Progress of this great National Work
by which a direct communication by Water was opened

The inscription is almost illegible, so a modern duplicate, smaller and in a different stone, stands to the side of the tunnel arch, with a pendant:

“This monument was erected by the Kennet & Avon Canal Partnership and John Lloyd, seventh generation mason of Bedwyn, as a replica of that erected by his ancestor, Benjamin Lloyd, mason of Bedwyn to the Kennet & Avon Canal Company, AD 2003.”

John Lloyd delivered the new inscriptions, appropriately, by boat.

Posted by: mike on Dec 9, 2013

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delightLatest

Thames & Severn Canal Sapperton Tunnel Coates Portal

Thames & Severn Canal:  Sapperton Tunnel, Coates Portal

Sapperton Tunnel on the Thames & Severn Canal epitomises the canal-builder’s dilemma about crossing a watershed – whether to dig an expensive tunnel to save lockage, or to build locks that demand a constant and abundant source of water.

Sapperton Tunnel cost a great deal to build, and leaked like a sieve.

The engineer Josiah Clowes is thought to have worked on the 2,880-yard, nine-foot-wide Harecastle Tunnel on the Trent & Mersey Canal for James Brindley, and Sapperton Tunnel was longer, at 3,817 yards, and was built to broad-canal dimensions without a towpath.  At the time of construction it was the longest tunnel so far built.

Work began in the spring of 1784 and was completed in 1789:  the first boat went through on April 20th that year.  Defects in the structure led to a ten-week closure only a year after the opening.

The original surveyor of the Thames & Severn Canal, Robert Whitworth, had observed, on a frankly superficial inspection, that the summit level ran “over some bad Rocky Ground...worse than [he had] even seen any Canal cut thro’ for such a continued length”.

In fact, the line of the tunnel alternately passes through impermeable oolite and the unstable, permeable clay known as fuller’s earth:  http://www.cotswoldcanals.com/pages/locks-bridges-structures/sapperton-tunnel.php.

The geologist John Phillips (1800-1874), in his biography of his geologist uncle Memoirs of William Smith (1844), wrote scathingly about the fundamental weakness of the line:

Such canals…are like the buckets of the Danaids, and with the water goes the profit.  In vain the Thames, raised from its source by a mighty engine, is poured into such a thirsty canal;  the flood passes into the gaping rocks below, in spite of renewed puddling and continual repairs.

The last boat went through Sapperton Tunnel on May 11th 1911 and almost the entire canal was abandoned in 1927.

The Cotswolds Canal Trust has been working since 1975 to restore the entire length of the Thames & Severn Canal, and the reopening of Sapperton Tunnel forms part of the third and final phase of their project:  http://www.cotswoldcanals.net/tunnel.php.

It won’t be easy, as Ken Burgin’s inspection 2009 report indicates:  http://www.cotswoldcanals.net/downloads/CCT_Tunnel_Report_Trow_Spring_2009.pdf.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Nov 1, 2013

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernLatest

Crofton Pumping Station

Crofton Pumping Station is a very precious and also a very pleasant place to be, if you can find it.

If you’re sailing on the Kennet & Avon Canal you can’t miss it, because it stands beside the locks as they climb to the canal summit approaching Bruce Tunnel.

If you’re driving it’s near the Wiltshire village of Great Bedwyn and well signposted – once you find Great Bedwyn.

All canals that cross a watershed represent an engineering compromise between climbing and tunnelling.  The Leeds & Liverpool Canal experienced recurrent maintenance problems because of the engineer Robert Whitworth’s recommendation to build Foulridge Tunnel.  The parallel Rochdale Canal suffered from water-supply difficulties following William Jessop’s suggestion of eliminating a 1½-mile tunnel by building more locks to a higher summit.

The Kennet & Avon Canal, like the Rochdale, was built with a very short, high summit pound which contained insufficient water to replace the two lockfuls that each passing boat took away with it.

Crofton Pumping Station was built in 1802 to back-pump water from the locks up to the canal summit.

The original engine was replaced in 1846, and the 1812 Boulton & Watt engine that remains is the oldest working steam-engine still in situ.

Under Great Western Railway ownership the pumping station was neglected, but both engines continued to pump until 1952, when pumping was transferred first to a diesel pump and then to an electric one.

The 1812 engine operated occasionally until 1958, when the top twenty feet of the chimney was dismantled leaving insufficient draught to run the boilers.  Though the steam engines were, in effect, retired the resident engineer, Mr Wilmot, continued to keep them in workable order.

The pumping station was purchased in 1968 by the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust, and a volunteer team returned the 1812 engine to steam, with an electric fan to supplement the natural draught, in April 1970.  Initial teething troubles were resolved in time for Sir John Betjeman to perform the opening ceremony in August.

The second engine was subsequently restored by a team of Rolls Royce apprentices, and returned to steam in November 1971, and the chimney was restored to its original height in 1996-7.

So now you can experience the engines working within the original engine-house, or watch the boats working the locks as the trains pass by alongside the canal, or sit inside the Engineman's Rest Café eating home-made food and drinking real beer.

The place is a welcoming experience for boaters and gongoozlers alike:  http://www.croftonbeamengines.org.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jun 26, 2012

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delight

Clifton Suspension Bridge

Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol

The first high-level crossing of the Avon Gorge at Bristol was not, in fact, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s suspension bridge, but a wrought-iron bar, installed in 1836 when bridge-building was about to begin, a thousand feet long and 1½ inches thick, suspended two hundred feet above the River Avon, to carry a basket for transporting materials hung from a roller.

Brunel made the first trip across (after his newly-wed wife, Mary Elizabeth Horsley, declined the opportunity) and got stuck halfway when the bar dipped.  He shinned up the suspension ropes to free the pulley and reached the opposite bank without further difficulty.

By 1843, with £45,500 spent, only the piers had been completed, linked by the single iron bar:  work stopped – to Brunel’s lifelong disappointment – and the unused suspension chains were sold and incorporated in his railway bridge across the Tamar at Saltash.

L T C Rolt, in his biography Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1957;  revised edition with an introduction by Angus Buchanan 1990), reports that when construction of the bridge stopped for lack of funds, the Clifton Bridge Company collected £125 in fares from members of the public who wished to ride across in the bucket.

The bridge as we know it was completed, to a variant of Brunel’s original design, in 1864 using the chains from another of his suspension bridges, across the River Thames at Hungerford.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jun 12, 2012

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delight

SS Great Britain

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s steamship Great Britain carries an immense cargo of stories.

Brunel remarked to the directors planning to build the Great Western Railway, “Why not make it [the GWR] longer and have a steamboat to go from Bristol to New York and call it the Great Western?”

The Great Western duly made its maiden voyage to New York in 1838, by which time the Great Western Railway reached out from London only as far as Maidenhead.

The Great Britain was his second steamship – the first iron-hulled, propeller-driven transatlantic steamship, at the time of her launch the largest ship in the world, the first ship ever to be photographed (by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1844).

She was floated for the first time on July 19th 1843, and ultimately returned to rest in the purpose-built dry dock in which she was constructed on July 19th 1970.  The launch was observed by the Prince Consort, and the return to Bristol by the present Queen’s consort, Prince Philip.

During her active life she served as a troop ship during the Indian Mutiny and the Crimean War, carried the first England cricket team ever to visit Australia in 1861 – an event that produced the first sponsored sporting tournament, the first cricket test match, and the first hat trick.

Her career had more than its fair share of cock-ups.  Brunel, the great risk-taker, repeatedly modified the design during construction – changing from a wooden to an iron hull, extending the dimensions five times and scrapping the half-completed engine and building a new one in order to switch from paddle- to screw-propulsion.

The completed vessel stuck in the lock on departure from Bristol, ran aground in Ireland because of navigational errors, and went through repeated modifications to the engines, propeller and auxiliary rigging.  Eventually, SS Great Britain gained a reputation for reliability shipping migrants from England to Australia.

She ended up as a sailing collier, and finally acted as a floating coal-bunker in the Falkland Islands, where she was eventually beached at Sparrow Cove.

Her rescue, promoted against huge odds by a group led by Richard Goold-Adams and Ewan Corlett and largely financed by Sir Jack Hayward and Sir Paul Getty, is itself one of the great stories of the sea, and her return to Bristol, sailing under Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, one of the memorable moments of many people’s lifetimes.

Though she arrived in Bristol as a rusting hulk, she is now vividly restored.  Wandering among her elegant saloons and cramped cabins brings to life the life-changing experiences of Victorian voyagers.  The only omission, fortunately, is that she doesn’t make anyone seasick.

Nevertheless, I noticed how one particular mannequin, a sad lady in black, sat alone in the dining saloon, repeatedly attracted the sympathetic curiosity of young children.  Her silence and their attention says all that’s needed about the cost of emigration – and the power of imaginative curating.

Read the story at http://www.ssgreatbritain.org/story.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on May 26, 2012

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delight

Kennet & Avon Canal Caen Hill Locks

Kennet & Avon Canal:  Caen Hill Locks

The excitements of the dotcom bubble and the speculation that led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis seem leisurely compared with the sheer farce of the Canal Mania of the early 1790s.

The financial success of the early canals, which sometimes halved the price of coal and other commodities in inland towns, caused a headlong rush to promote waterways across Britain from anywhere to everywhere. 

Optimistic investors literally fought to put their names on subscription lists for waterways which in most cases had little chance of a practical future.

In the West Country serious promoters took to keeping their subscribers’ meetings secret to avoid attracting frivolous speculators.

On one occasion, according to Kenneth R Clew, historian of the Kennet & Avon Canal, an advertisement appeared in the Salisbury Journal for a promoters’ meeting in Devizes without indicating a precise venue.

On the day the town became overcrowded with increasingly irritable potential investors looking for a meeting that nobody had organised.  Eventually the town clerk was persuaded to chair an ad hoc assembly but “no business of any consequence could be done, and the meeting could only be a tumultuous assembly called together without any knowledge for what purpose, no person appearing to take an active part in it”.

The only people who profited from this farce were the publicans of Devizes.  A bed for the night cost a guinea, whereas a post-chaise back to Bristol was ten guineas.

The Kennet & Avon Canal was eventually built through Devizes:  it opened in 1812 and after years of neglect is once again navigable.

Just outside Devizes the canal climbs through a series of 29 locks – sixteen of them in a magnificent single flight at Caen Hill.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Mar 12, 2012

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delight

Somerset Coal Canal

Somerset Coal Canal, stop lock at Dundas Aqueduct

At the southern end of Dundas Aqueduct, a branch runs from the Kennet & Avon Canal, through a curious narrow stop-lock.  Nowadays the branch ends abruptly after less than half a mile, at Brassknocker Wharf, where there is an excellent modern restaurant called the Angelfish [http://www.foodanddrinkguides.co.uk/bath/angelfish-restaurant/restaurant/2742].

This is all that remains navigable of the Somerset Coal Canal, a long-forgotten and fascinating piece of canal and railway archaeology.  It was devised by John Rennie (1761-1821), the engineer of the Kennet & Avon Canal, and surveyed by William Jessop (1745-1814) and William 'Strata' Smith (1769-1839), whose work is celebrated at the Rotunda Museum, Scarborough.

The original canal was built westwards to Paulton, to tap the potential traffic of the Somerset coalfield.  The first coal was brought out in 1798, though the canal itself fully opened only in 1805.

Bringing barges from the summit level 135 feet higher than the Kennet & Avon required 22 locks.  To reduce the drain on limited supplies of water, the engineer Robert Weldon proposed instead building a caisson lift at Coombe Hay, in a single operation [See http://www.coalcanal.org/history/Rowley/tLev1.htm].

This involved building a series of three 60-foot-deep cisterns, into which each barge would be floated in an airtight container – the caisson – and sunk, emerging at the foot of each lift with no loss of water at all.  [See http://www.coalcanal.org/features/Caisson/Caisson.htm and http://rtjhomepages.users.btopenworld.com/caisson-telegrap.html (which first appeared in The Daily Telegraph)].

An experimental model of this system appeared to work, but the full-sized version was unsuccessful, apparently because of geological rather than mechanical problems.

It was replaced, first by an inclined plane, and eventually – in 1805 – by a flight of locks, from which a steam pump returned water to the summit pound.

A canal branch from Radstock as far as Twinhoe was never completed:  to avoid the expense of a further flight of locks the line was built as a tramway by 1815.  This was superseded in 1875 by the Somerset & Dorset Railway line to Bath.

There was no shortage of coal traffic, but the Somerset Coal Canal was an early victim of railway competition.

Later, the bulk of the main canal between Limpley Stoke and Camerton was converted by the Great Western Railway to a standard-gauge branch-line in 1910.  This was not a commercial success, but after it closed it became the location for the celebrated Ealing comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953).

Much of the route of the Somerset Coal Canal is traceable, including the former aqueduct at Dunkerton, for seriously determined explorers to seek out.  The Somerset Coal Canal Society exists to foster interest in the route:  http://www.coalcanal.org.

Of the caisson lift hardly anything remains.  The masonry was used to build the replacement locks, and archaeological digs have revealed very little.

I wonder if there’s a working model somewhere?

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Dec 14, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernLife-enhancing experiences

Claverton Pumping Station

There’s something strangely miraculous about using water to lift water.

It’s not by any means unusual.  Even before the Industrial Revolution, in mines particularly, waterwheels were used to harness the power to lift water vertically, using Heath Robinson contrivances called “rag and chain” pumps.

The engineer George Sorocold (c1668-c1738) used waterwheels to provide mains water to houses, first in Derby, and then elsewhere including the area around London Bridge.

Just about the only surviving example, however, is at the Claverton Pumping Station on the Kennet & Avon Canal, a few miles outside Bath.

The Kennet & Avon notoriously suffered water-supply problems, primarily because its summit level was so short, but also because the stretch along the Avon valley around Limpley Stoke was continually drained by the Bath locks and also leaked like a sieve.

The Claverton pump uses two adjacent breastshot waterwheels, each seventeen feet in diameter, to lift water fifty gallons at a time 48 feet from the River Avon into the canal.

It’s an oddly peaceful piece of machinery.  The wheelhouse has all the illusory ease of water-power.  It’s easy to forget the amount of energy concealed in the tranquil water and the idle splashing of the wheel paddles.

The water drives what is in effect a beam engine, very like the more familiar stationary steam engine, but at Claverton there’s no heat, no sense of simmering energy.  It’s extraordinarily restful to watch the beam rise and fall without apparent effort.

The pump started work in 1813, and stopped finally when an obstruction stripped many of the oak teeth from the main spur wheel in 1952.  The canal was no longer navigable by that time and the British Transport Commission chose to replace it with a diesel pump simply to fulfill their legal obligation to maintain a level of water.

Fortunately, industrial archaeologists were alert to the significance of the place, and the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust, assisted by the then Bath University of Technology and apprentices from the British Aircraft Corporation at Filton, Bristol, painstakingly restored it.

The water was heaved from the river into the canal once more in 1976.

Now it’s possible to enjoy the sights and sounds of eighteenth-century engineering on regular opening days.  The team-members at Claverton are very welcoming:  they have an excellent coffee machine and an executive loo.

The best access is by walking along the towpath.  Arriving by car involves dodgy parking and an unnerving crossing of the Wessex Main Line railway.

Details of opening times and operating days for the Claverton Pump are at http://www.claverton.org.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Nov 20, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delight

Swindon & Cricklade Railway, Blunsdon Station

The Swindon & Cricklade Railway is one of the smaller volunteer efforts to preserve the age of steam.  It boasts that it’s the only standard-gauge preserved railway in Wiltshire and occupies, not part of Brunel’s former broad-gauge Great Western, but a stretch of the little-known Midland & South Western Railway, a late-comer which allowed the trains of the Midland Railway and its allies to penetrate Great Western territory to reach Southampton.  The section from Swindon through Cricklade to Cheltenham was opened in 1881.

When the Swindon & Cricklade volunteers came here there was nothing but trackbed.  Every sleeper and rail, every stick and sheet of metal has been brought here since 1978.  This is a railway that hasn’t been blessed with lottery money or large donations.

Volunteers have built two stations, Blunsdon (which last saw a passenger train in 1924), and a temporary terminus with loco- and carriage-sheds at Hayes Knoll, where additional land was available short of the ultimate destination at Cricklade.

The long-term plan is to extend southwards, diverging from the M&SWR line to a new station at Mouldon Hill Country Park and then eventually to an interchange station with the Great Western main line at Sparcells.  A northward extension to Cricklade is also planned.  The current round-trip ride is around four miles. 

There is an excellent Whistlestop Café, housed in two Norwegian railway carriages, from which you can birdwatch as well as train-watch, and a rolling programme of entertaining events through the year – not only the customary Wartime Weekend and Santa Specials, but Murder Mystery Evenings and a Halloween Ghost Train.  On-board dining is provided on two beautifully spruced-up blue-and-cream Moonraker carriages.

Details of this year’s and next year’s programmes are at http://www.swindon-cricklade-railway.org.

Every cup of tea bought, and every fiver pushed into the green donations pillar-box, takes this enjoyable little railway nearer to its termini.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Oct 25, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delightLife-enhancing experiences

Dawdling Dairy

You have to be a special person to have an aqueduct named after you.

Charles Dundas, 1st Baron Amesbury (1751-1832) was in fact the chairman of the Kennet & Avon Canal company:  someone thought it would put a smile on his face to give his family name to John Rennie’s aqueduct across the River Avon at Monckton Combe.

Its parapet carries a plaque commemorating Charles Dundas on one side and, on the other, John Thomas, the company’s chief engineer, “by whose skill, perseverance and integrity, the Kennet and Avon canal was brought to a prosperous completion”.

The Dundas Aqueduct is slightly larger than the Avoncliff Aqueduct [see If it moves, charge it].  The main span is 65 feet (Avoncliff 60 feet) and the whole aqueduct 150 yards long (Avoncliff 110 yards).

Whereas the Avoncliff Aqueduct has a light, simplified Corinthian entablature, the Dundas Aqueduct has full-dress twin Roman Doric pilasters and an exaggerated cornice that may be a not entirely successful attempt to give weather-protection to the masonry beneath.

Only at the Lune Aqueduct on the Lancaster Canal [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lune_Aqueduct], with its five arches, Doric entablature and buttresses, did Rennie exceed his aqueducts on the Kennet & Avon.

As a tourist attraction, and an excuse for gongoozling [see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gongoozler], the Dundas is a prime spot.

You can even buy cheese and an ice-cream from the floating dairy that is currently moored alongside the aqueduct:  http://www.dawdlingdairy.co.uk/index.html.

You don’t get that at any old aqueduct.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Oct 23, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delight

Kennet & Avon Canal Avoncliff Aqueduct

It’s not easy to reach Avoncliff except, of course, on a boat.

South of Bradford-on-Avon the Kennet & Avon Canal follows the narrow valley of the River Avon.  Brunel’s Great Western Railway squeezes alongside John Rennie’s waterway and there are two tiny roads on each side of the valley, with no connection across the river.

Rennie carried the canal over the river on the stately Avoncliff Aqueduct, not perhaps his best advertisement because the sixty-foot main arch sagged very shortly after it was finished in 1798, yet it has stood ever since.

As early as 1803 heavy repairs were needed.  It seems that Rennie’s advice to use brick was disregarded to retain the goodwill of local quarry-owners who would bring trade to the completed canal.

In the course of restoring the entire canal, the aqueduct was made securely watertight with a concrete bed in 1980.

It’s not a good idea to take a car down the valley, especially on summer weekends.  Indeed, it’s inadvisable to take anything much bigger for lack of turning space.  There is a railway station, with a two-hour service between Bristol, Bath and Bradford-on-Avon, which is particularly useful if you want to walk the couple of miles along the canal from Bradford-on-Avon and then ride back.

Once you reach Avoncliff it’s a pleasant spot to while away the hours.  There’s an excellent historic pub, the Cross Guns [http://www.crossguns.net], which provides meals and refreshments, and usually something passing by along the canal.

This was not the case between the wars when, according to Kenneth Clew, the canal’s historian, most of the tolls collected at Bradford-on-Avon were cycle permits.  The toll-book also records a shilling toll “for carrying a corpse across the aqueduct at Avoncliff”.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Oct 10, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delight

Didcot Railway Centre

Didcot Railway Centre [http://www.didcotrailwaycentre.org.uk] celebrates the Great Western Railway – known to its aficionados as “God’s Wonderful Railway” and to its weary Victorian customers as the “Great Way Round”.  The Centre is built round the 1932 engine shed, itself a remarkable piece of social and transport history, funded in the midst of the Depression by a National government desperate to reduce unemployment by priming cash-strapped private enterprise.

The engine shed has much of the patina of a working loco depot, with odd nooks and crannies in which engineering wizards deal in steel, brass and oil while brewing strong tea and putting the world to rights.

The GWR Chief Mechanical Engineer at the start of the twentieth century, George Jackson Churchward, developed standardised features in locomotive design so successfully that his signature can be seen in the locomotives of the LMS Railway, those of his pupil Sir William A Stanier, and in the final series of post-war British Railways designs by Stanier’s own pupils.

Immediately recognisable features of Churchward’s designs – tapered boilers, copper-capped chimneys and brass valve-cases – meant that Great Western engines were among the most elegant on British railways.

Didcot proudly shows more than twenty of these magnificent locomotives, and Churchward’s use of standard components means that the Great Western Society can reconstruct long-vanished designs to complete the sequence.  Whereas the LNER A1 locomotive Tornado had to be constructed expensively from scratch, the GWS plans to reproduce a ‘Saint’ from a ‘Hall’, and a ‘County’ from another ‘Hall’ using an LMS boiler.

The Centre astutely makes a virtue of its limitations:  its two short branch-lines offer frequent out-and-back steam-train rides “so there is always something to watch”.  The publicity-material makes the point that all train-rides are in vintage carriages not (as in some Johnny-come-lately steam railways) using late-1960s stock from the age of diesel, and visitors have freedom of movement to explore such features as a working turntable, a reproduction broad-gauge track and train and a surviving example of Brunel’s atmospheric railway track.

For nearly ten years, museum development at Didcot was held back by uncertainties over the lease for the site, until October 2011, when the Centre obtained a further fifty-year lease from Network Rail.

The Centre stands at the apex of a junction between the GWR lines from Paddington to Swindon and Oxford.  That is the point of the place:  it provides the sounds and smells of nineteenth- and early-twentieth century rail travel while twenty-first century trains whizz past on either side.

There’s an echo of this contiguity in Kensal Green Cemetery [see Catafalque burial, Equestrian genii, Praised with faint damns and Apocalyptic visions], where lie both Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who virtually invented the Great Western, and his great friend and rival, Robert Stephenson, son of George, within earshot of trains which still speed on opposite sides of the cemetery from Paddington and from Euston.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Oct 9, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernVictorian architectureTransports of delight

STEAM – the Museum of the Great Western Railway

If you must drive, don’t go to Swindon.  Just don’t go there.  Get someone who already lives there to come out and fetch you.

The place is a nightmare of bad signage and confusing road layouts.  It’s the location of the notorious Magic Roundabout, designed by Frank Blackmore, claimed to be safer than any alternative because drivers are so terrified they go slowly:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_Roundabout_(Swindon).

The sensible way to reach Swindon is, of course, by train.

Walk from the station to the surviving Railway Village, built in the early years of the Great Western Railway as a company town, New Swindon, alongside the line and the works, away from the original market town, Old Swindon.

The rows of terraced houses, with gardens, are now carefully looked after, unlike the desperately neglected, historically important Mechanics’ Institute (1855;  extended 1892) [http://www.bbc.co.uk/wiltshire/content/image_galleries/swindon_mechanics_institute_gallery.shtml?1, http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?t=41501 and http://www.derelictplaces.co.uk/main/showthread.php?t=3228].

Walking through the subway under the railway tracks into the area that was the great railway works is a poignant experience.  Sturdy stone buildings from the days of Gooch, Dean and Churchward stand alongside modern structures with names such as ‘Heritage Plaza’.  Some of the site is occupied by those great wealth-generators, English Heritage and the National Trust.  Walk through the door of one building and you’re immediately in the midst of John Lewis’ furniture department:  this is the Swindon Designer Outlet [http://www.swindondesigneroutlet.com], which has the GWR locomotive 7918 Hinton Manor as a backdrop to the food court.

Across the way, STEAM – the Museum of the Great Western Railway [http://www.steam-museum.org.uk] is superb, capturing the noise and busy-ness of the great works in a restricted space, and telling its story with breadth and wit.  It’s a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours, with plenty to occupy children and big kids.  I worked the signals and points to let the Royal Train past, because there was too much of a queue to drive an engine.

That said, there’s nothing much to eat inside the Museum, though there is a National Trust café, more department-store than country-house, in Heelis, their headquarters across the way which is named after the author Beatrix Potter, Mrs William Heelis [http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-trust/w-thecharity/w-new_central_office/w-new_central_office-heelis.htm].

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.


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