A Day at the Churnet Valley Railway
by David A Wright
For various reasons, it had been many years since I was last able to visit 'my' railway. So it was with great enthusiasm that I looked forward to the August Bank Holiday1 Saturday, when a long-delayed trip was planned. Despite an inauspiciously grey-clouded start to the journey from Runcorn, the weather improved markedly as we approached Staffordshire, a county in the middle of England with some of its most beautiful countryside.
I was accompanied by a friend, Peter, who had never seen the Churnet Valley before and was somewhat sceptical about my eagerness to return. His interest had been kindled by the various copies of the magazine, 'Knotty'2, published by the railway company, which I had shown him, but he was still rather lukewarmI about the whole idea.
I, on the other hand, had discovered this idyllic spot where river, canal and railway crossed and re-crossed, many years previously while walking along an interconnected series of public footpaths known as the 'Staffordshire Way'. That day, the engineer in me had been intrigued by puffs of steam rising above some nearby trees. Closer inspection had revealed the unlikely presence of a steam locomotive amidst this rural scenery. That was the beginning of the interest for me, although various circumstances precluded more than one or two visits during the intervening 20 years. I had been sustained only by the 'Knotty' and their website at www.churnetvalleyrailway.co.uk.
We arrived at the main centre of the railway, Cheddleton, in good time for the 2:00 pm departure for Froghall, one of the present termini. What a blessing the Churnet Valley Railway (CVR) timetable keeps to the old 12-hour clock system3. The aim of the centre is to simulate 1950s conditions as realistically as possible, while adhering to modern safety standards. Picking our wayII through the puddles in the car-park and across the level crossing4, Peter and I could see a few other travellers already gathered on the platform. There was even a queue at the booking office to get us properly into the right mood5.
In no time at all, the 4-6-0 type6 steam engine numbered 7821 and named7 'Ditcheat Manor' huffed and puffed into the station and reassuringly ground to a halt. I admired the way that the driver had so positioned his engine that each carriage door coincided exactly with one of the portable steps which are needed to assist entry from the slightly lower platform into the carriages. Only later did I discover that this minor miracle was accomplished by some deft sleight-of-handIII by the station staff whilst my attention was distracted elsewhere - they positioned the steps after the train had stopped! Eagerly, we boarded, via the guard's vanIV as we had some goods8 to give to the railway, and made our way along the corridor to an empty seat. Unfortunately, there were plenty of empty seats - I would have preferred to have found the train so full of passengers that it would be difficult to find a vacant place - so the 'crowd' at the station was easily accommodated. What a lot of people were missing a good day out!
Precisely on time (of course!) whistles were blown and '7821' put her shoulder to the wheel9, as it were, and we glided out of the station. The nostalgic clickety-click10, the familiar upholsteryV, door windows which opened11 and the appearance of the ticket inspector soon transported us back in time. Just as easily, the train transported us to Consall Station - completely transformed since I last saw it. Everyone was so friendly. Even the Station MasterVI found time to exchange a few words with the passengers, despite having a train standing in his station.
Twelve minutes after leaving Cheddleton, we drew out of Consall and in another seven, passing the lime kilnsVII and Thomas Bolton's derelict factory, we reached 'Kingsley and Froghall' - for the present, the end of the line, where faithful Ditcheat Manor ran around the train for the return journey. This station deserves a visit in its own right, apart from its being the railway terminus. Everything was just as it should be: posters, old-fashioned luggage lying around, notices, flowers in bedVIII and basket and all the rest - even an apparently randomly-positioned, but carefully restored, GPO12 van. It was not hard to detect the hands of many caring volunteers, for no present-day 'professional railpersons' would care for their charges with such devotion.
We were in no hurry to return, so we took a walk round the station yard and out over the bridge, but the railway soon drew us back - or was it rather the thought of a cup of tea. The sun was shining with a warmth matched only by the welcome in the tea-room. The tea was all that could be hoped for and a few souvenirs could not be overlooked! I bought the entire stock of postcards (all 5!) so I hope more were available for the rest of the Bank Holiday. We had a look around the small kiosk called the 'Caddy Shack' - they sell unwanted books, ornaments, videos, etc, to help raise funds for the CVR. It was there that I was slightly disappointed to learn that aspirations to continue the line south to Alton Towers, a popular amusement park that draws a lot of visitor to the area, had been abandoned due to lack of support from the present owners of the park.
What? Time to board the 3:54 pm back to Cheddleton already? Sadly so.
My companion is a fisherman, so his eyes were drawn to the canal, river and ponds beside the track as we made our return journey. Retracing our way, there was a short stop once more at Consall, then we rumbledIX through Cheddleton and a surprise for my fisher friend! He had been misled by the illustrated route diagram into thinking that the tunnel was little more than a bridge under the A520 main road, but utter blackness descended upon us for minutes rather than seconds. Then we shot past a caravan site and on to Leekbrook Junction. Then, back through the tunnel once more and into Cheddleton Station again where our journey ended - 5? miles each way, a total of 11 miles13 of railway track.
Of course a visit to the engineering workshops was a 'must', with a quick peep into the signal box on the way. We refrained from pulling any levers and satisfied ourselves with poses as signalmen.
One of the most impressive features of the day for me was the continual reminder that all this is down to the voluntary work - and hard work at that - by numerous enthusiastic people. Maybe the impression is sometimes given that heritage railways are the playthings of overgrown 'anoraks'14 and wealthy businessmen. Maybe there are some of those involved with the railway (I hope even more come along), but most are extraordinary 'ordinary' people, young and old, male and female, apparently having a thoroughly good time.
I lukewarm - равнодушный
II to pick one's way - продвигаться вперед с большой осторожностью
III sleight-of-hand - ловкость рук
IV guard's van - багажный вагон
V upholstery - обивка
VI Station Master - начальник станции
VII lime kiln - печь для обжига извести
VIII bed - (зд.) клумба
IX to rumble - грохотать
1 The Bank Holiday is a national holiday, formerly on the 1st Monday in August, but now on the last weekend in that month (including the Monday).
2 The name comes from the knot symbol adopted by Staffirdshire as part of its official coat of arms. It was displayed on the engines, carriages, notices, etc, belonging to this railway when it was a small private company and so the railway itself became affectionately known as 'The Knotty'. It seems to be an English custom to personalise our machines!
3 That is the one with which I (and most English people) are most familiar, although the tendency is to use the 24-hour clock in travel documents to minimise confusion between am and pm times.
4 This is a place where road traffic crosses the railway and hence needs to be protected by gates and barriers.
5 Queuing (Americans say 'getting in line') is part of the English tradition. 'Jumping' the queue, ie getting in before your proper turn, is a severe social error and is deeply resented by others in the queue.
6 The numbers indicate the wheel arrangement: four small ones at the front, six main driving wheels, and none at the read because a separate tender behind the engine carried the store of fuel needed for the journey.
7 Not all engines have names as well as numbers.
8 An unwanted video recorder to be used for showing visitors videos of the railway so that they would be encouraged to buy one for themselves; a 1957 portable typewriter to add to the props used to create a realistic scene; and tools, cleaning materials (old rags), etc, which are always useful.
9 A common metaphor for getting down to some had work, from the times when carts got stuck in muddy roads and the driver had to get down and help the horse by pushing on the cartwheel himself - a strenuous activity.
10 The sound of the train wheels running over joints between sections of track, before all welded track was common.
11 Modern train windows are sealed shut for reasons of safety - they stop people from leaning out which was part of the fun in the old days!
12 'GPO' means 'General Post Office'. In the 1950s, the GPO ran the telephone network as well as the mails services throughout the UK. The van here contains an original telephone exchange still working to provide private phone services for the railway.
13 About 171/2 kilometres.
14 'Anorak' is the disparaging term given to enthusiasts (like 'geek' or 'nerd') who have hobbies that are generally not appreciated by the general public. The term comes from the waterproof jacket typically worn by those who stood around watching for engines and noting their numbers and other details. In my day, it was a popular pastime with small boys!
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