Monday, April 18, 2011

Another wonderful steam restoration

To a non-railway buff like me, this glistening heap of steel resembles a life-size version of Thomas the Tank Engine. It’s even painted a similar shade of blue. But in the world of steam engines, this is nothing short of a miracle. ‘It’s like seeing the Titanic raised from the Atlantic and restored to life as an ocean liner,’ says local steam buff Tom Arnold, surveying this wondrous resurrection.

Because Edward II is not just one of the last of the great steam locomotives. It is also testimony to the ingenuity, perseverance and passion of that indefatigable force of nature: The Englishman with a hobby.

Rail enthusiasts — from trainspotters to members of the Brunel family — have been flocking to the Didcot Railway Centre in Oxfordshire this month to pay homage to this fabulous feat of restoration.

It has taken 125 amateur enthusiasts £700,000 and 60,000 hours of voluntary work over 21 years to rescue a heap of scrap and turn it back into a fully operational industrial work of art. Some of the team have not just sacrificed holidays and precious weekends. The whole exercise may even have pushed a few marriages to the brink, too. Now that it is done, several wives have reclaimed their husbands. Others, it must be said, cannot wait for another restoration to lure their husbands out of the house again.

But no one disputes the magnitude of the achievement. You can’t help wondering why on earth we don’t put this lot in charge of Britain’s entire rail network.

Everything is magnificently oiled and polished when I arrive. Edward II is not ‘in steam’ when I turn up (it will be this weekend) but it means I can clamber around the cab, and it’s all spotless.

This wonderful old railway shed is full of beautifully-maintained old engines, some of them dating back to the mid-19th century. One giant is kitted out in its World War One khaki livery. But the star of the show — which is open to the public most days — is Edward II.

Resident mechanic David Horsley shows me the controls — a red lever for going forward or backwards, another red lever for fast or slow and a series of handles and valves for braking. Behind me is a huge pile of coal and a very large shovel with which the fireman was expected to keep the boiler fully ablaze. Back-breaking stuff.

I had always imagined steam obsessives to be pedantic gents of a certain age, but David is a mere 26 and has been a railway enthusiast since childhood. Along with everyone else, he cannot quite believe that Edward II will soon be pulling coachloads of steam lovers all over the country. ‘The preservation world called this ''Mission Impossible'' and they weren’t joking,’ says David, who was just five years old when this project began.

To the boiler-suited cognoscenti, this marvel is simply ‘6023’. To the rest of us, it is a very large steam locomotive, one of the last to thunder along what used to be known as the Great Western Railway — GWR or ‘God’s Wonderful Railway’ as the oily rag brigade sometimes call Brunel’s engineering triumph.

Edward II was built in 1930 at GWR’s Swindon works. Back then, the company’s biggest and best express locomotives were named after kings. It spent many years speeding from London along the big routes to Cardiff, Bristol and Plymouth at speeds pretty similar to today’s trains.

But in 1948 GWR was swallowed up into the nationalised behemoth of British Rail. Edward II lost its old green GWR livery and was painted in new British Rail blue (the colour it sports today). By 1962, the new management was looking to a steam-free future. Edward II was sold to a scrap dealer in Barry, South Wales, with specific instructions that it was not to be sold on to anyone else. Sentimentality was alien to the dismal Sixties bureaucratic mindset.

The British Rail management wanted people to forget the dirty, sweaty old days of steam and embrace the joys of diesel and electric trains. ‘It was all about looking to the future,’ says Richard Croucher, the chairman of the GWR Society, formed 50 years ago to preserve the memory of the old network. ‘They wanted to wipe out the past.’

Up and down the country, old King class locomotives were sent off to be melted down. But Edward II and its sibling, Edward I, were spared the regicide, simply because the Welsh scrap dealer had them at the back of his yard and never quite got round to chopping them up.

Years later, Edward I was retrieved and lovingly restored by a bunch of enthusiasts. One other King — George V — had also been salvaged and is now a static exhibit at York’s National Railway Museum. But Edward II had always seemed beyond hope. Following a shunting mishap in Barry, its wheels had been chopped off in the Sixties. Many of its parts had been cannibalised to help restore Edward I. And so it just sat in Barry, broken and inert, waiting for the blowtorch.

But there is no defeating the dedicated steam boffin. First, a handful of enthusiasts from Bristol bought the royal carcass in 1985. When they ran out of funds, the Great Western Society decided to get involved. They turned to Dennis Howells, an engineer who has devoted his life to railways. He even owns his own locomotive (don’t ever call these things a ‘train’). ‘I’ve seen some wrecks in my time,’ says Dennis. ‘But that was easily the worst.’

He was up for the challenge, though. The society paid £9,000 for the corpse of Edward II and Dennis assembled a team.

Here was a project for which the term ‘labour of love’ might have been invented. So, did some of the team end up having to choose between Edward II and their wives?

‘It didn’t quite come to that,’ says Dennis, 71. ‘But it can happen. You just have to be sensible about what you ask people to do.’

The biggest challenge was finding some new wheels. None existed, so Dennis and a consortium of engineering brains spent a long time commissioning a fresh set at a cost of some £30,000. The team would meet every other Sunday, all year round, in the Didcot workshop. Some died before seeing their cherished project reach fruition.

Today, I find half-a-dozen engines in the same giant shed in various states of restoration. A couple of professional engineers are working on specific projects as contractors. Come the weekend, they will be joined by hordes of volunteers. An unexpectedly young face peers out of the boiler of a Saint class locomotive. Alex Beasley, 23, started messing around with steam trains as a child. Now he is a professional boilersmith.

The whole 25-acre site is a museum, sandwiched between two modern mainlines. Today’s inter-city traffic thunders past as David Horsley shows me the only surviving example of Brunel’s famous broad-gauge railway and some alarmingly basic open-air third-class carriages from the earliest days of steam.

I sit down in a plush saloon which served as a travelling drawing room for Churchill and the Royal Family during World War II. The huge old wireless set still works.

Another youngster is hard at work nearby. Local carpenter Mark Werrell, 24, started coming to Didcot as a child with his father, a founder member of the GWR Society. Now, he is a mad keen volunteer himself. He’s got the afternoon off from work. He could be at home watching telly or out in the sunshine. Instead, he has decided to come down here and do some more renovation work on an old luggage van.

It’s not a men-only world, as manager Roger Orchard points out. ‘I would say around five per cent of our volunteers are female and we see lots of women visitors on open days,’ he says. But he acknowledges that a huge project like Edward II can take its toll on some families.

‘I heard that one woman had told her husband: “I hate Didcot and I hate that Edward II train and I can’t wait till it’s finished so you can do the garden.” I think he’s looking for a new project now.’


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