Tuesday, 17 July 2007

My First Steam Special

I travelled on my first steam special back in 1960 when scheduled steam was still around. In that year, the city of Stoke-on-Trent was celebrating its Jubilee. A railway exhibition was held in the North Western Yard at Stoke from the 11th to 24th May. British Rail organised an excursion from Birmingham New Street to Stoke allowing a visit to the exhibition. The preserved Midland Compound, 1000, was rostered for the trip. I arranged a Brake Van Permit (in those far-off days, such things were possible) because I hoped to make some sound recordings on the trip. Permission to travel in the end of the leading brake-composite would, I thought, position me next to the engine and allow me to make some decent recordings.
When I arrived at Birmingham New Street, the special train was already waiting with 1000 at the head, resplendent in its Midland crimson livery. There were also a large number of rather excited railway enthusiasts milling about the platforms. I don't think the term 'anorak' had been coined then but I remember that I wan't very impressed with their behaviour. We set off Northbound, past the busy No. 5 signal box and into New Street North Tunnel. The tunnel was always smoke-filled with water dripping from the roof and the driver had to proceed cautiously to maintain traction up the bank. He made a fair job of it and picked up speed as we passed the signal boxes at Shepcote Lane, Monument Lane and Harbourne Junction. We must have turned right at Winson Green Junction, to take the Soho Road Line to Perry Barr where we joined the original Grand Junction Line. At Bescot we turned right again, for Pleck Junction and Walsall. Leaving Walsall, there's another climb through Park Street Tunnel up to Ryecroft Junction. Passing Walsall Shed, 1000 gave a whistle in salute to the assorted locomotives. A driver travelling 'on the cushions' joined me in the brake end. He was 1000's regular driver but had handled over the locomotive to local men with the appropriate route knowledge. I thought the train was running quite well, but the driver shook his head. "They don't know how to make her 'compound'". However, by the time the train had reached East Cannock Junction, the regular driver looked a bit happier. "That's better" he said, nodding his head in approval. We flew towards Rugeley, where we joined the Trent Valley Line until Colwich, turning right there onto the line for Stone and then Stoke. All too soon, we were running into the down platform at Stoke-on-Trent.
A short walk took me to the Technical College where a number of railway exhibits had been arranged. I remember being impressed by the preserved 'Knotty' (North Staffordshire Railway) 0-6-2 tank engine but I've forgotten what else was on display. Later on, I returned to the station where our return train was waiting. I presume the 'Compound' had been onto Stoke shed for turning and 'fettling' for the return journey whilst the passengers had been enjoying the exhibition. Once again, I established myself in the leading guard's van, immediately behind the locomotive.

We retraced our route as far as Stone, where we turned right onto the Stafford line, running at reduced speed through the sharply-curved platforms past the attractive and distinctive station buildings. We made good speed until Norton Bridge's distant signal, which remained obstinately 'on', despite impatient whistling from the driver. It was just becoming dark as we crawled to a standstill at the home signal protecting the junction with the four-track main line between Stafford and Crewe. The red glow from the firebox lit up the surrounding area. For a while, all was quiet - the usual hisses and 'clinks' from the locomotive and the sound of conversation on the footplate, then the sound of an approaching train and a 'Rebuilt Scot' passed on the Up Fast, working hard, with the following coaches spilling yellow light onto the ballast. Soon, there was a 'clank' from our signal as we 'got the road' and our driver made a cautious start, drawing his train around the curve and onto the Up Fast. Local whistle codes were authorised at Norton Bridge so that drivers of up train could signal their requirements at Stafford - the signalman at Norton Bridge could telephone ahead to Stafford so that the correct arrangements could be made. As we moved towards the signal box, our driver gave the whistle for 'Train not stopping at Stafford requiring the Stour Valley Line' - two long and a 'crow' (I think). What an evocative sound!
We had an uneventful trip to Stafford, where we slowed first to get onto the Slow lines then to get onto the Goods Lines. We clanked past Stafford No. 5 Box, the adjacent Motive Power Depot, the signal box on the Goods lines and made our way to Stafford No.1 where the Stour Valley line to Wolverhampton diverges to the right. Once clear of Stafford, speed picked up again and it was not long before we were passing Bushbury Shed and Bushbury No. 1 signal box. Once over the viaduct, we were soon making our station stop at Wolverhampton, where I left the train. The special then continued back to Birmingham New Street.
It was years before I saw '1000' again, sadly, 'stuffed and mounted' in the National Railway Museum at York. And the sound recordings? I'm sorry to say that, at present, they're missing. If I can find them, and if they're still playable, I'll do what I can to preserve them.