My second ‘appearance’ at the West Somerset Railway in support of its celebration of the Somerset & Dorset Railway was just as exhausting as the first one but equally, just as rewarding.
Leaving home at 04:30 is unusual for me – I’m not normally called upon to work such long shifts. Plus, living so far from the Crosville Motor Services bus depot in Weston-super-Mare is a burden worth carrying when it comes to Gala days like this one. Once again I prepared my bus, ex-Crosville Bristol VRT DVG260 (HTU159N), for its long duty.
I arrived at Taunton Railway Station with plenty of time in hand so I had a chance to eat a late breakfast. Sadly, it came out of a Tupperware box* rather than the kitchen of the Quantock Belle which I would have preferred! I wore my traditional 1960s bus uniform, including a matching heavy overcoat. I was glad to have this because the weather, although forecasted to be bright and reasonably warm later, was decidedly chilly at this time in the morning and there are no heaters fitted to this bus! Moving up to the bus stop next to Platform 2 I loaded a handful of passengers for Bishops Lydeard, most of whom were carrying rucksacks and camera equipment.
The journey to the WSR’s southern terminus only takes about 20 minutes and the first departure of the day was waiting in the station as we arrived at the coach stop. Even at that time, the car parking spaces at the station were filling quickly and I made a mental note to use the service bus stop (which has a clear run to the station exit) on the other side of the bus shelter next time.
My next run from Taunton was far busier, with an almost full load. It took me several attempts to leave because, as soon as I pulled away, more people would emerge from the station and clamber breathlessly aboard. Even after circumnavigating the station car park I was flagged down by three more passengers, including one in a wheelchair. Getting him and his chair onto the bus was a bit of an ordeal because there was no raised pavement nearby. The VR made light work of the heavy load, thanks to the powerful Gardner 6LX engine and power-steering! I heard one of the passengers, who obviously also had an interest in buses, say to his friend as they boarded “Great – a bit of Crosville VR thrash”. The Bristol VR has a pleasingly raucous engine note and I love to hear it when it’s working hard. But I’m not one for thrashing buses so my usual, smooth driving technique prevailed. Although I may have been quite firm with the ‘loud pedal’ once or twice…
With one more trip done, I set about finding somewhere to park the bus. My usual spot was occupied by cars displaying blue disabled badges. I’m not sure why that gives them priority in a clearly marked coach bay but never mind. A car park marshal suggested that I park outside the nearby Brunel House, an administrative building and workshop shared by the WSR and the WSRA, the railway’s supporting body.
Like the previous week, I had several hours to kill before making the return journeys so I began by watching the visiting steam locos departing to either Norton Fitzwarren or Minehead with well loaded trains. Signal boxes have always fascinated me so I invited myself into the one on Bishops Lydeard’s platform. The two time-served signalmen were very welcoming, as was the warmth inside the ‘box. A small pot-bellied stove, fed occasionally from a nearby bucket of Welsh Steam Coal, was pumping out plenty of heat. A young volunteer, obviously learning the ropes, heaved on the levers as paths were set for various trains. The intricacies of signalling is a bit of a black art to me, and comes with a whispered vocabulary including such gems as block tokens, interlocking and ground dollies. And then there’s the bell codes…
But common to all signalboxes is a sense of pride in doing things right, keeping the railway running safely and keeping the ‘box tidy. For a start, proper signalmen always use a duster to handle the levers and buttons. This minimises the chances of corrosion forming by placing sweaty palms on the metal! Even while I was there (or perhaps it was for my benefit), Lawrence the signalman muttered something about keeping things clean while flicking his duster around the various instruments on the shelf above the levers. I had to drag myself away eventually so, after thanking Lawrence and his pipe-smoking assistant, descended the wooden steps to the platform. Behind me, more bells tinkled inside the ‘box as another train was offered from Crowcombe.
After a spot of lunch I wandered over to the opposite platform and went in to look at the large 4mm railway layout belonging to the Taunton Model Railway Group. Very appropriately, it is modelled on the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway’s northern terminus at Bath Green Park. If you are ever in the area and the exhibit is open, do go in and watch the layout in action. The quality of the modelling is excellent and the level of detail, such as puddles on the ground and very effective weathering on the locos and stock, is breathtaking.
With such a late finish in prospect I went back to the bus for a snooze (I must be getting old…) before driving round to the station where an orderly queue had formed at the bus shelter. My only difficulty on the first two return journeys was the exit from the station. Cars and camper vans had been parked on both sides of the road, which only left just about enough room for the bus to pass through. The road curves round to the left as well, which doesn’t help. While in the signalbox earlier I noticed a Stagecoach bus turn around and come back the other way. Perhaps the longer length of his vehicle prevented him from getting through. Camels and the eye of a needle come to mind.
Matt, the young but very helpful and friendly Stationmaster, came up and told me that the last train to arrive would be 30 minutes later than the previous week. This was good to know, especially as an issue involving engine oil developed and I needed the extra time to resolve it. Among the passengers on my last journey was someone who looked rather familiar. It was the owner of the Wilts & Dorset Bristol Lodekka that I’ve driven a couple of times. I hadn’t recognised him without his Tilling uniform!
I have thoroughly enjoyed my duties in support of the WSR Spring Steam Gala. I suppose I’m fortunate in having an interest in heritage railways as well as buses, otherwise I might have been very bored! I want to pay tribute to all the staff and hundreds of volunteers up and down the line who managed to put on a fantastic gala. It was a very fitting commemoration of the famous and much-lamented S&DJR. The WSR must have spent a fortune bringing in the visiting locos, not to mention the extra coal. I’m looking forward to more duties later in the year in support of other special events on the WSR.
*Other brands of picnic-ware are available.