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Tag Archives: John Evans

  • Railways of Wales in the 1960s by John Evans

    In 1966, a youthful visitor manages to hitch a ride on the Welshpool and Llnafair Railway’s neat little tank engine ‘Countess’’, which is still busy on the line today. (Author's collection, Railways of Wales in the 1960s, Amberley Publishing)

    A gap of just over sixty years separates my two visits to the delightful little Welshpool and Llanfair Railway. Today it is an important and successful tourist attraction; back in the 1960s it was a fledgling heritage railway short on money and equipment, but long on enthusiasm and ambition. Like many old lines, British Railways finally gave it the axe in the mid-1950s, mothballing the two little engines and allowing the route to succumb to nature.

    But as with so many old railways, especially narrow gauge lines in Wales, there always seems to be someone out there with a Grand Plan. In this case a group of volunteers gamely revived about half the line and it was in this pioneering state when I went for a ride. Compare that with today’s prosperous situation. There is a generous sized booking hall and bookshop (lots of Amberley books – ‘Would you sign some for us please?’). I duly obliged. The engines and coaches are immaculate. At the end of the line I chatted with the driver and showed him some pictures on my phone from my forthcoming book The Railways on Wales in the 1960s. He gazed at them, identifying some of the early personalities who had been at the forefront of getting things going again in the 1960s. When the book appeared a short while ago I was delighted to send him a copy – and the bookshop manager assured me it would be a regular stock item for the railway.

    The Talyllyn Railway’s terminus at Towyn in the early 1960s, a far cry from the much bigger and busier station of today. (c. Ron Fisher, Railways of Wales in the 1960s, Amberley Publishing)

    Going back to somewhere special after many years can be a mistake. It’s all too easy to rewind the clock with dewy eyes and overlook the negatives. In the case of the railways in Wales, they are different today, but just as good. Better actually, as they are mature and vibrant parts of the Welsh tourist industry. When I visited the Vale of Rheidol Railway in 1966 it was still run by British Railways. We drove there in my little cream Fiat 600. The crews did their best, but a clean engine was interpreted very differently on the Vale of Rheidol from enthusiast-operated lines like the Ffestiniog and Talyllyn. Today the Rheidol railway is also run by enthusiasts, and if a spot of oil appears somewhere on the engine, it is immediately wiped away to keep everything pristine. All this is wonderful for the average visitor, but dare I say I quite liked the old British Railways line with its driver in grubby overalls getting paid for doing an honest day’s endeavor.

    Getting ready for the day’s work on the Vale of Rheidol Railway in 1967. The engine is receiving the most superficial effort with the cleaning rag, but it ran beautifully. (Author's collection, Railways of Wales in the 1960s, Amberley Publishing)

    One of the pleasures of writing what I call ‘living history’ – putting a personal touch on events from years ago – is the letters and comments received about subjects being recalled. Of course it would be nice to have had some of these before the book was written! But you meet some wonderful people when researching your narrative. A young volunteer at the Ffestiniog Railway was peering at some pictures in my book and could hardly believe how ‘small and amateurish’ everything looked. Today the Ffestiniog is a big business, but – like other Welsh railways – it retains the intrinsic charm of the old days. In 1966, you could wander around workshops and possibly get a ride on the footplate if you asked nicely. These days, health and safety has reared its head and no doubt you would need a hard hat, training course and hi-vis jacket to do anything remotely like the escapades we got up to. But flicking through the pages of my book with an old friend who accompanied me on my railway adventures back in the 1960s was enough to prompt us into action. We’ve booked a cottage in Wales next summer and – now as a foursome – will relive our youth. Anyone know where I can rent a little Fiat?

    John Evans' new book Railways of Wales in the 1960s is available for purchase now.

  • Northampton Buses by John Evans

    Northampton buses in Wellingborough Road in the 1960s. (Author's collection, Northampton Buses, Amberley Publishing)

    We hear a lot about classic car and railway preservation. But buses? Not so much. After all, why would anyone dig deep into their pockets to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds and preserve that most humble of transport vehicles, an old bus?

    Yet in recent years there has been a flurry of restorations. Take John Child’s perfectly-restored wartime Daimler, for example, which spent all its working life on the streets of Northampton in the 1940s and 1950s. Eventually No. 129 made its last melancholy journey, along with several others, to a Cambridgeshire scrapyard run by Romany bus breaker Joe Hunt.

    John Child's Daimler No. 129 sleeps away in Joe Hunt's scrapyard, with sister No. 136 behind. Both would escape to live new lives. (c. John Child, Northampton Buses, Amberley Publishing)

    For some reason Joe decided not to cut up these vehicles. So for thirty years they sat in his yard, most of them exposed to the wind and rain, gradually deteriorating and robbed of parts. Old No. 129, however, led a more charmed life, as it had been stored under cover.  It eventually emerged, battered and bruised yet still restorable, to win a place in the heart of Mr. Child. He acquired it in 2000 and with the help of a team in Lincolnshire, lovingly brought it back to life.

    John Child is not alone. One other Northampton bus, No. 146, in much worse condition, was also rescued from Joe’s yard and beautifully restored. Others were bought direct from Northampton Transport in the 1970s by enthusiasts.  And No. 154, a 1947-built training vehicle kept at St. James’s Garage after retirement from everyday service, found its way into preservation when it was used to promote the opening of a new bus station. Yet another Northampton bus, No. 267, was the very last open platform, front engine bus delivered in the UK, and also survives. These were the last buses that needed a conductor and driver.

    Refugees from Hunt's yard reunited; John Child's wonderful wartime Daimler No. 129, restored to pristine condition with the correct adverts on the side, is seen in Northampton with Crossley No. 146. (c. John Child, Northampton Buses, Amberley Publishing)

    With so many old Northampton buses winning the hearts of enthusiasts, it might be thought that the town had one of the more important bus fleets in the country. Not so. But it was one of the more interesting. For a start it was very late making the change to one-man operation (one person these days, of course). Under Deputy Transport Manager Ken Dyer, Northampton Corporation also maintained its buses to a very high standard – by the late 1960s the town had 70 almost identical Daimler vehicles still with conductors and gleaming in pristine vermilion red.

    Recently, a few of them have returned annually to ply the streets of the town, bringing enjoyment to those with long memories and enlightenment to younger passengers. They are as important a part of the town’s transport heritage as the corporation’s old Allchin steam roller, the tram shelters at the White Elephant and Cock Hotel or old photos of Castle station.

    A new life for a Northampton CVG6 - still resplendent in its immaculate Northampton livery, No. 258 has been converted to the Bowland Brewery bus bar. (c. Paul Brookfield, www.flickr.com/photos/lancashire, Northampton Buses, Amberley Publishing)

    Look around the town today and deregulation of bus operations has led to a delightful array of companies and liveries. Your bus may be a pink double-decker or a red, white and blue single deck vehicle; it will have a hi-tech destination panel visible a hundred yards away.  But enthusiasts long for the old days, when route 14 meandered all over the town to get to Kenmuir Avenue, on a cold day a piece of cardboard would be shoved down the front of the radiator grill to keep the engine warm and on a hot one the driver would leave the sliding cab door open to stay cool.

    Researching my new book on Northampton Buses for Amberley was very much a labour of love.  I started with old town records, made a nuisance of myself with the very helpful team in Northampton Public Library’s local history team and was given free access to all the photos stored by the Northampton Chronicle and Echo. I also had hours of fun sorting and scanning the dozens of colour pictures I took of Northampton buses in the 1960s. Even now I cannot quite remember why I took so many.

    Meanwhile, I’m off for a pint served from Northampton bus No. 258. Did I mention it has been perfectly restored – as a bus bar?

    John Evans new book Northampton Buses is available for purchase now.

  • SMJ Railway by John Evans

    To call the dear old SMJ railway ‘enigmatic’ would be rather excelling its virtues. It was created in 1908 from a jumble of lines that linked Olney, a small market town in Buckinghamshire, with Stratford-upon-Avon, a total length of just 79 miles. Its full name was the Stratford-upon-Avon and Midland Junction Railway, a word you’ll notice, for every ten miles of its track. To say it ran from nowhere to nowhere might be stretching things a little, but you can get the measure of the operation by knowing that one of the components of this amalgamation in 1908 was called the Northampton and Banbury Junction Railway, whose rails somehow failed to reach either of these towns. Ambitiously, much of the SMJ was engineered for double track, but the huge twin-arched bridges were destined to see just one line, and a rather rusty one at that, pass beneath them.

    Last Rites 1 The huge bridge built to carry the M1 motorway over the SMJ near Roade. It was a waste of money as trains never ran beneath it. 29 April 1966. (c. Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard, Amberley Publishing)

    Primarily it was built as part of a series of lines to transport high quality iron ore from the East Midlands to South Wales for smelting. But it was only ever a bit player in this business and the line’s historian, J.M. Dunn, once described the SMJ as a ‘poor and struggling railway' with ‘an unprosperous history.’ He added, with a nice turn of phrase, that it was a case of ‘the survival of the unfit.’

    To locals, it was known as the ‘Slow and Muddle Junction’ and regarded with some affection. After it became part of the mighty London Midland and Scottish Railway in 1923, things carried on as normal. One coach trains rumbled through delightful countryside with a handful of passengers. But the line was much more important for freight, some of them using the route to make a rather circuitous journey from Bristol to London. Of course, it couldn’t last. When British Railways was created as a new nationalised industry in 1948, someone clearly found a piece of paper at the bottom of a filing cabinet saying a bizarre little network of lines through Northamptonshire and Warwickshire existed, and decided to take a look.

    Last Rites 2 Blisworth SMJ station on 5 April 1966, with some very nice looking Northamptonshire ironstone from Blisworth quarry awaiting movement. (c. Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard, Amberley Publishing)

    No doubt he was impressed by the relaxed way of life on the line (trains sometimes stopped so the engine crew could shoot rabbits to take home for dinner); but the fact that there were hardly any passengers may not have been quite so comforting. In 1951 and 1952 all passenger trains were withdrawn, years before Dr Beeching wielded his axe. This could have been the beginning of the end, but it was then agreed to divert some heavy freight trains along the western section of the route, and the SMJ enjoyed something of an Indian summer. Alas, it was not to last. The freight trains were sent elsewhere, the little ironstone quarries that provided business for the route closed and by the end of the sixties, the SMJ was but a fast-fading memory.

    Today you see its scar across the countryside, but as bridges are removed, farmers get to work ploughing and towns and villages undergo development the trail of the SMJ is looking very thin indeed. Just old goods shed here and there – an odd bridge appearing to stand in a field and some neat little houses in Blisworth labelled ‘SMJ’ (built for local employees) are among the more significant remains.

    Last Rites 3 Kineton Ministry of Defence depot on 23 June 1966, scene of our arrest while walking the SMJ. Who said being a railway enthusiast was boring? A small mishap is being cleared up. (c. Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard, Amberley Publishing)

    Its memory is treasured, however, in lots of ways. For a start there is a society devoted to it. There are also lots of photographs. A friend, Bryan Jeyes, and myself, added to the stock of pictures in the mid-1960s when we walked the whole of the route, taking colour photos. (We also managed to get arrested at Kineton Ministry of Defence camp, which backs on to the railway, a story related in my Amberley book, Last Rites).  But apart from this bit of fun, we can proudly claim to be the last people to travel over the whole of the SMJ, even if it was on foot and not as the line’s founders intended.

    Much more exciting is the news that Towcester Museum, situated in a Northamptonshire town that was a major junction on the route, is to hold an exhibition for six months starting in late August. They have gathered together old signs, artefacts, photos, memorabilia and other reminders of the line, to mark 150 years since the first section, from Blisworth to Towcester, opened. There are many new folk living in the town whom will no doubt discover for the first time that their community once boasted a rather impressive railway station, right where Tesco now have a supermarket.

    To those of us who are old enough to recall the SMJ in action, the most significant – and apposite – survivor is the old station at Stoke Bruerne. True to form, this is nowhere near the village it purported to serve. It was opened in December 1892, one of two massively-built stations on the section from Towcester to Olney. Business wasn’t good, however, and just four months later the passenger service was withdrawn, never to be restored. Some trains had no passengers at all.

    Still, it has made a very fine house for many years and no doubt will continue to do so.

    9781445655024 9781445654980

    John Evans books Workhorses of the Big Four and Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard and available for purchase now.

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