NEXT to a sign that amusingly reads ‘Old Codgers Sidings’ a handful of men-in-overalls, having spent the morning embroiled in oily labour, give us a grin as they quaff mugs of tea and eat sandwiches.
Passing them at a leisurely 15mph our hardy TASC 45 diesel engine, built in Austria around 30 years ago, chugs into the countryside on the outskirts of Swindon, its air-horn occasionally emitting blasts of a satisfyingly ear-splitting nature.
Our slightly bumpy but jaunty ride, from one end of the three-mile track of restored railway line to the other, lasts about 20 minutes though it seems to flash by in half that time.
Fields of grazing sheep and neatly designed rows of houses – the northernmost tentacles of Swindon’s residential expansion zone – amble by.
In the midst of all this is something quite extraordinary – a busy, sprawling railway compound that occupies a once derelict patch of muddy, weed-choked land.
Dotted with an impressive array of railway furniture from eras harking back more than a century, it is part station, part engineering workshop, part restoration yard and part visitor attraction.
Alongside the track is a cluster of intriguing railway-themed relics – a signal box, a ticket office, a guard’s hut, an archaic but fully operational water tower, a pedestrian’s crossing and some carriages that now serve as a restaurant-cafeteria.
Elsewhere all sorts of noisy, clanking projects are in progress, mostly involving the restoration of rusting hulks from bygone ages.
Discarded engines and carriages, some rescued from that great railway knacker’s yard and which to my eyes look completely beyond salvation, are set to rock and roll once more courtesy of an army of volunteers.
I can’t help comparing the scene to that of a model railway that has been meticulously assembled over several years with an assortment of disparate parts… only this is the life-sized real thing. “You’d be surprised the number of Swindon people who don’t know that we’re even here,” says Dave Peacey, 69, a former wagon riveter and welder at the town’s long closed railworks.
“Railway enthusiasts come here from all over the country. But Swindon people turn up for the first time and seem really surprised. ‘Oh we didn’t know anything about this,’” he laughs.
Dave is sitting next to me in the Eighties-built diesel as it cheerfully jolts into a meticulously reconstructed platform evokes the Golden Age of Railways.
With understandable pride he continues: “Everything you see here is the result of sheer hard graft. This is a real passion. It is an obsession, not a hobby.”
He adds: “I have always had the railways in my blood. I worked on the railways, so did my father, so did my grandfather.”
And so, in a way, he still does.
Dave is deputy chairman of the Swindon and Cricklade Railway, which runs Wiltshire’s only standard gauge heritage centre and is now acknowledged as one of the country’s leading rail preservation societies.
Occupying the site of the former Blunsdon railway station, this ever evolving complex is a vibrant, teeming testament to thousands of volunteers who have built it from scratch over the past three-and-a-half decades.
It all started in 1976 when a letter in the Advertiser generated interest among a group of like-minded individuals with loco smoke and diesel oil coursing through their veins.
They heartily agreed that Swindon’s 150-year-old railway heritage should not end with the looming closure of the increasingly run-down railway works.
After a few false starts, they were in 1978 allotted a bramble infested lump of rural wasteland that once housed Blunsdon station. The grass and the nettles, original members recall, were 4ft high.
Little more than a cattle shed itself, the station was one of dozens dotted along the Midland & South Western Junction Railway line, from Cheltenham to Andover that were shut more than half-a-century ago.
Railway nostalgia author John Stretton said that his 2003 book about the Midland & South Western was the most difficult he had ever tackled. Virtually all evidence of the line had vanished, having swiftly and effectively “returned to nature”.
But thanks to Swindon’s dedicated cadre of restoration buffs, he said, at least part of the 1880s railway had now been “reborn with rails on it”.
To describe Blunsdon station’s rebirth as phoenix-like would not be doing the heritage society sufficient justice.
The operation now underway on the site dwarfs what previously existed there. The old Tadpole Lane station, located between Swindon and Cricklade, was a pile of rubble when the society got cracking.
First they built a new platform with materials salvaged from the derelict Rushey Platt and Swindon Old Town stations and then re-laid track along the old route.
Donations from local companies – from diesel shunters to a signal box – helped pave the way for what became a gargantuan, verging on Brunel-like task.
It soon became clear, however, that this was not, as Stretton succinctly put it, “boys playing trains.”
Today, the sight that greets hundreds of weekend visitors is that of a hectic, bustling railway complex thick with the aroma of diesel fumes and steam, centred around the recreated Blunsdon station – much bigger and better equipped than the original.
Along nearly a mile of re-laid track towards Cricklade is Hayes Knoll station where engines and rolling stock are meticulously renovated by dozens of volunteers.
In the other direction from Blunsdon station towards Swindon, is two miles of track ending at Taw Valley Halt, on the edge of Moulden Hill Country Park.
The society’s chairman, retired NHS estates manager Brian Pound, 66, says: “No-one here gets a penny for the work and expertise they contribute. It’s a labour of love.”
The ultimate aim is to extend the line in both directions, eventually linking Sparcells in West Swindon with the Cotswold Water Park, via Cricklade.
When? Perhaps in 15 to 20 years, depending on a myriad of circumstances.
What a result that would be – a ten-mile stretch of the old Midland & South Western back from the dead 60 maybe 70 years after being consigned to that great train set in the sky.
- Like many rural railway stations Blunsdon has its own station cat – Garfield, a rotund ginger tom. According to volunteers he turned up one day around five years ago, liked it and stayed on. Visitors love him, they say. Naturally, he’s a life member of the society and even has his own compartment in a restored passenger vehicle.
- NEATLY dressed in his Fifties railway guard gear complete with peaked cap, retired teacher Dave Durham, 76, of Coleview, Swindon organises schools trips to Blunsdon station. He says: “Children love it here. They think it’s brilliant. They’ve never seen anything like it.”
...AND THE WORK IS NEVER DONE
THE Swindon and Cricklade Railway is a charitable trust that requires around £100,000-a-year to survive.
It has some 550 members of whom 160 or so offer their skills and time in a variety of roles.
More than 20,000 people a year visit the station which holds regular steam and diesel weekends.
Trains begin running for the 2014 season on Saturday, March 15.
The society also hosts a variety of popular events such as Mother’s and Father’s Day specials, wartime weekends and murder mystery evenings.
Every year around 100 people take advantage of driver experience courses to realise a childhood dream of driving a steam or diesel engine.
Key to the heritage centre set-up is the restoration of engines and rolling stock that is undertaken either for a fee for private owners, or to renovate locos and carriages for use at Blunsdon.
Current projects range from the restoration of first, second and third class compartments of a 1894 Cambrian Railways coach to recreating Galloping Gertie, a 1930s Beyer Peacock tender loco.
A new restoration centre is also being planned next to the existing one at Hayes Knoll to increase the society’s capacity to restore and refurbish locos and rolling stock.
- Further information, including open days, times, special events, driver courses, ticket prices can be found at: www.swindon-cricklade-railway.org or by phone: 01793 771615