Shed Bashing in the 1970s and 1980s by Colin Alexander
When my mate David, now exiled in France, made me custodian of his collection of railway photos from the early 1980s it sparked the idea of compiling a book recalling our teenage years, misspent bunking BR diesel depots.
Wishing to include as much variety as possible I decided the book would encompass two decades, from 1970 to 1989. In 1970 I was six years old and my Dad was taking me to ‘watch the trains’. On these trips I can clearly remember seeing Clayton Type 1s dumped at the back of Tyne Yard.
It wasn’t until 1978, aged fourteen, that I was allowed to go independently to Newcastle Central station. The cost of a return from Tynemouth and a platform ticket was less than 10p. I quickly made friends with other ‘platform-enders’, forming lifelong friendships. Forty years later, we still go on rail-tours and to preserved diesel galas together.
The west end of Central station provided a tantalising glimpse across the Tyne to Gateshead depot. A walk across Robert Stephenson's High Level Bridge led us via the old NER Greenesfield Works to the shed foreman's office door where we made the mistake of knocking and asking permission to look around. Having been chased off, next time we knew better and just sneaked in up the bank beside the King Edward VII Bridge and through a hole in the fence, to the sidings known as the ‘ash-heaps’.
We soon progressed to travelling, usually with the excellent £2.60 weekly Northumbrian Ranger ticket. We mostly ‘bashed’ Deltics between Berwick and York but always made time to visit Carlisle’s Kingmoor shed. On all but one occasion we were flatly refused entry by the ‘gadgie’ in the office so we’d trudge back over the bridge, forced to view the locos across the main line from rusty sidings which often contained withdrawn locomotives awaiting disposal. They led to one of our favourite vantage points, the Waverley route bridge and its view of the secondary shed in the marshalling yard.
We began to travel further afield in our quest for diesel exotica, and found Scottish shed foremen far more amenable to scruffy youths wandering about than their Gateshead and Kingmoor counterparts.
The Ian Allan Locoshed books became indispensable, providing directions through the dodgiest parts of Britain's towns and cities to depots. My friend Tim and I, then aged 12 and 14 respectively, had been taken by his parents to Glasgow for the day. The grown-ups set off shopping, leaving us kids to visit Eastfield shed. Like many depots it was surrounded by run-down estates and we soon became aware we were being followed. Turning, I saw a boy about our age, but looking much ‘harder’ than us (not difficult), accompanied by a much older lad who looked even scarier. What caught our eye was that one wielded a half-brick while the other carried a bike chain. We ran as fast as we could but Tim’s legs could not carry him fast enough. I made it to the security gates of The Metal Box factory and got the guards there to rescue Tim. Our assailants scarpered but not before robbing Tim of what little cash he was carrying.
The police were called and soon we found ourselves in a scene from “Rab C Nesbitt”, riding the tenement streets in a ‘jam sandwich’ squad car on the lookout for the baddies. Our description of the older of the two matched that of one of their most wanted, and soon enough we spotted them. He and his younger sidekick were hauled into the back seat and the former was literally sat on by the arresting officer for the journey to the ‘nick’, six of us jammed into a five-seater car! Their pockets were emptied, the contents given to us and we were sent on our way. A tidy profit was made and nothing was said to my friend’s parents.
On another occasion, having used Merseyrail under the river to get to the sheds in Birkenhead, I lost my ticket and had no cash, and had no means of boarding a train back to Liverpool. Imagine the look on the ticket vendor’s face when I asked where the nearest bridge was, thinking I could simply walk back over the river. I now know that it is approximately a 25-mile walk to the bridge at Runcorn. Fortunately he took pity and let me fare-dodge back under the Mersey.
Whole weekends would be planned around shed-bunks. Just after my sixteenth birthday six of us travelled overnight from Newcastle to London. Three of us travelled in style behind Deltic 55012 CREPELLO to York then 55009 ALYCIDON the rest of the way to the capital, arriving in the early hours of Saturday morning. The other three lads were not so well-off so they met us at Victoria off the overnight National Express coach.
We visited Clapham Junction, Selhurst and Hither Green with their Class 73 electro-diesels. Then followed the trainspotters’ mecca of Stratford to see the last remaining Class 31/0s. The North London line took us to Willesden where AC electrics awaited, then trudged down the road to Old Oak Common to see Class 50s. Our trip was concluded with more Deltic haulage behind 55014 THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON’S REGIMENT overnight from King’s Cross, with diversions via Lincoln and the Leamside line, while our mates suffered another night on the M1 and A1. We all got home early next morning, tired, filthy and happy.
If the varied contents of BR’s sheds were not interesting enough, it was even more exciting to visit the workshops of British Railways Engineering Ltd, normally accessible only on open days. Dad came up trumps, taking me to open days at Doncaster in 1978 and Crewe in 1979. These events introduced me to the unforgettable smell of the paint-shops and the fascinating sight of locomotives being built, overhauled or scrapped.
The most memorable open day was the “Deltic D-Day” at Doncaster, in February 1982. Thousands of enthusiasts converged on the town to pay their last respects to the survivors of the class, all having been withdrawn from service and several having already been cut up.
Open days were fine but their very legitimacy meant they weren’t a patch on blagging our way into a location where we shouldn't be!
Perils associated with shed visits were unlit inspection pits, oily puddles, tripping hazards and moving trains. Southern Region depots offered a 750vDC third rail as an additional danger, but we are all still here. It is difficult to imagine in today’s era of health and safety that enthusiasts were ever allowed to access such facilities!
In this book I have assembled a collection of photographs that show the widest possible variety of traction in the principal depots and works all over the network, along with many of the lesser installations.
Colin Alexander's new book Shed Bashing in the 1970s and 1980s is available for purchase.