Category Archives: Waterways & Railways between Thames and Severn

Water pump

Claverton Pumping Station, Kennet & Avon Canal, Somerset

Claverton Pumping Station, Kennet & Avon Canal, Somerset

There’s something strangely miraculous about using water to lift water.

It’s not by any means unusual.  Even before the Industrial Revolution, in mines particularly, waterwheels were used to harness the power to lift water vertically, using Heath Robinson contrivances called “rag and chain” pumps.

The engineer George Sorocold (c1668-c1738) used waterwheels to provide mains water to houses, first in Derby, and then elsewhere including the area around London Bridge.

Just about the only surviving example, however, is at the Claverton Pumping Station on the Kennet & Avon Canal, a few miles outside Bath.

The Kennet & Avon notoriously suffered water-supply problems, primarily because its summit level was so short, but also because the stretch along the Avon valley around Limpley Stoke was continually drained by the Bath locks and also leaked like a sieve.

The Claverton pump uses two adjacent breastshot waterwheels, each seventeen feet in diameter, to lift water fifty gallons at a time 48 feet from the River Avon into the canal.

It’s an oddly peaceful piece of machinery.  The wheelhouse has all the illusory ease of water-power.  It’s easy to forget the amount of energy concealed in the tranquil water and the idle splashing of the wheel paddles.

The water drives what is in effect a beam engine, very like the more familiar stationary steam engine, but at Claverton there’s no heat, no sense of simmering energy.  It’s extraordinarily restful to watch the beam rise and fall without apparent effort.

The pump started work in 1813, and stopped finally when an obstruction stripped many of the oak teeth from the main spur wheel in 1952.  The canal was no longer navigable by that time and the British Transport Commission chose to replace it with a diesel pump simply to fulfill their legal obligation to maintain a level of water.

Fortunately, industrial archaeologists were alert to the significance of the place, and the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust, assisted by the then Bath University of Technology and apprentices from the British Aircraft Corporation at Filton, Bristol, painstakingly restored it.

The water was heaved from the river into the canal once more in 1976.

Now it’s possible to enjoy the sights and sounds of eighteenth-century engineering on regular opening days.  The team-members at Claverton are very welcoming:  they have an excellent coffee machine and an executive loo.

The best access is by walking along the towpath.  Arriving by car involves dodgy parking and an unnerving crossing of the Wessex Main Line railway.

Details of opening times and operating days for the Claverton Pump are at http://www.claverton.org.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

 

Not yet Swindon or Cricklade

Blunsdon Station, Swindon & Cricklade Railway, Wiltshire

Blunsdon Station, Swindon & Cricklade Railway, Wiltshire

The Swindon & Cricklade Railway is one of the smaller volunteer efforts to preserve the age of steam.  It boasts that it’s the only standard-gauge preserved railway in Wiltshire and occupies, not part of Brunel’s former broad-gauge Great Western, but a stretch of the little-known Midland & South Western Railway, a late-comer which allowed the trains of the Midland Railway and its allies to penetrate Great Western territory to reach Southampton.  The section from Swindon through Cricklade to Cheltenham was opened in 1881.

When the Swindon & Cricklade volunteers came here there was nothing but trackbed.  Every sleeper and rail, every stick and sheet of metal has been brought here since 1978.  This is a railway that hasn’t been blessed with lottery money or large donations.

Volunteers have built two stations, Blunsdon (which last saw a passenger train in 1924), and a temporary terminus with loco- and carriage-sheds at Hayes Knoll, where additional land was available short of the ultimate destination at Cricklade.

The long-term plan is to extend southwards, diverging from the M&SWR line to a new station at Mouldon Hill Country Park and then eventually to an interchange station with the Great Western main line at Sparcells.  A northward extension to Cricklade is also planned.  The current round-trip ride is around four miles. 

There is an excellent Whistlestop Café, housed in two Norwegian railway carriages, from which you can birdwatch as well as train-watch, and a rolling programme of entertaining events through the year – not only the customary Wartime Weekend and Santa Specials, but Murder Mystery Evenings and a Halloween Ghost Train.  On-board dining is provided on two beautifully spruced-up blue-and-cream Moonraker carriages.

Details of this year’s and next year’s programmes are at http://www.swindon-cricklade-railway.org.

Every cup of tea bought, and every fiver pushed into the green donations pillar-box, takes this enjoyable little railway nearer to its termini.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

 

Dawdling at Dundas

Dundas Aqueduct, Kennet & Avon Canal, Somerset

You have to be a special person to have an aqueduct named after you.

Charles Dundas, 1st Baron Amesbury (1751-1832) was in fact the chairman of the Kennet & Avon Canal company:  someone thought it would put a smile on his face to give his family name to John Rennie’s aqueduct across the River Avon at Monckton Combe.

Its parapet carries a plaque commemorating Charles Dundas on one side and, on the other, John Thomas, the company’s chief engineer, “by whose skill, perseverance and integrity, the Kennet and Avon canal was brought to a prosperous completion”.

The Dundas Aqueduct is slightly larger than the Avoncliff Aqueduct.  The main span is 65 feet (Avoncliff 60 feet) and the whole aqueduct 150 yards long (Avoncliff 110 yards).

Whereas the Avoncliff Aqueduct has a light, simplified Corinthian entablature, the Dundas Aqueduct has full-dress twin Roman Doric pilasters and an exaggerated cornice that may be a not entirely successful attempt to give weather-protection to the masonry beneath.

Only at the Lune Aqueduct on the Lancaster Canal [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lune_Aqueduct], with its five arches, Doric entablature and buttresses, did Rennie exceed his aqueducts on the Kennet & Avon.

As a tourist attraction, and an excuse for gongoozling [see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gongoozler], the Dundas is a prime spot.

You can even buy cheese and an ice-cream from the floating dairy that is currently moored alongside the aqueduct:  http://www.dawdlingdairy.co.uk/index.html.

You don’t get that at any old aqueduct.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

If it moves, charge it

Avoncliff Aqueduct, Kennet & Avon Canal, Wiltshire

Avoncliff Aqueduct, Kennet & Avon Canal, Wiltshire

It’s not easy to reach Avoncliff except, of course, on a boat.

South of Bradford-on-Avon the Kennet & Avon Canal follows the narrow valley of the River Avon.  Brunel’s Great Western Railway squeezes alongside John Rennie’s waterway and there are two tiny roads on each side of the valley, with no connection across the river.

Rennie carried the canal over the river on the stately Avoncliff Aqueduct, not perhaps his best advertisement because the sixty-foot main arch sagged very shortly after it was finished in 1798, yet it has stood ever since.

As early as 1803 heavy repairs were needed.  It seems that Rennie’s advice to use brick was disregarded to retain the goodwill of local quarry-owners who would bring trade to the completed canal.

In the course of restoring the entire canal, the aqueduct was made securely watertight with a concrete bed in 1980.

It’s not a good idea to take a car down the valley, especially on summer weekends.  Indeed, it’s inadvisable to take anything much bigger for lack of turning space.  There is a railway station, with a two-hour service between Bristol, Bath and Bradford-on-Avon, which is particularly useful if you want to walk the couple of miles along the canal from Bradford-on-Avon and then ride back.

Once you reach Avoncliff it’s a pleasant spot to while away the hours.  There’s an excellent historic pub, the Cross Guns [http://www.crossguns.net], which provides meals and refreshments, and usually something passing by along the canal.

This was not the case between the wars when, according to Kenneth Clew, the canal’s historian, most of the tolls collected at Bradford-on-Avon were cycle permits.  The toll-book also records a shilling toll “for carrying a corpse across the aqueduct at Avoncliff”.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

 

God’s Wonderful Railway

Didcot Railway Centre, Oxfordshire

Didcot Railway Centre, Oxfordshire

Didcot Railway Centre [http://www.didcotrailwaycentre.org.uk] celebrates the Great Western Railway – known to its aficionados as “God’s Wonderful Railway” and to its weary Victorian customers as the “Great Way Round”.  The Centre is built round the 1932 engine shed, itself a remarkable piece of social and transport history, funded in the midst of the Depression by a National government desperate to reduce unemployment by priming cash-strapped private enterprise.

The engine shed has much of the patina of a working loco depot, with odd nooks and crannies in which engineering wizards deal in steel, brass and oil while brewing strong tea and putting the world to rights.

The GWR Chief Mechanical Engineer at the start of the twentieth century, George Jackson Churchward, developed standardised features in locomotive design so successfully that his signature can be seen in the locomotives of the LMS Railway, those of his pupil Sir William A Stanier, and in the final series of post-war British Railways designs by Stanier’s own pupils.

Immediately recognisable features of Churchward’s designs – tapered boilers, copper-capped chimneys and brass valve-cases – meant that Great Western engines were among the most elegant on British railways.

Didcot proudly shows more than twenty of these magnificent locomotives, and Churchward’s use of standard components means that the Great Western Society can reconstruct long-vanished designs to complete the sequence.  Whereas the LNER A1 locomotive Tornado had to be constructed expensively from scratch, the GWS plans to reproduce a ‘Saint’ from a ‘Hall’, and a ‘County’ from another ‘Hall’ using an LMS boiler.

The Centre astutely makes a virtue of its limitations:  its two short branch-lines offer frequent out-and-back steam-train rides “so there is always something to watch”.  The publicity-material makes the point that all train-rides are in vintage carriages not (as in some Johnny-come-lately steam railways) using late-1960s stock from the age of diesel, and visitors have freedom of movement to explore such features as a working turntable, a reproduction broad-gauge track and train and a surviving example of Brunel’s atmospheric railway track.

For nearly ten years, museum development at Didcot was held back by uncertainties over the lease for the site, until October 2011, when the Centre obtained a further fifty-year lease from Network Rail.

The Centre stands at the apex of a junction between the GWR lines from Paddington to Swindon and Oxford.  That is the point of the place:  it provides the sounds and smells of nineteenth- and early-twentieth century rail travel while twenty-first century trains whizz past on either side.

There’s an echo of this contiguity in Kensal Green Cemetery, where lie both Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who virtually invented the Great Western, and his great friend and rival, Robert Stephenson, son of George, within earshot of trains which still speed on opposite sides of the cemetery from Paddington and from Euston.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

 

STEAMed up

STEAM – the Museum of the Great Western Railway, Swindon, Wiltshire

STEAM – the Museum of the Great Western Railway, Swindon, Wiltshire

If you must drive, don’t go to Swindon.  Just don’t go there.  Get someone who already lives there to come out and fetch you.

The place is a nightmare of bad signage and confusing road layouts.  It’s the location of the notorious Magic Roundabout, designed by Frank Blackmore, claimed to be safer than any alternative because drivers are so terrified they go slowly:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_Roundabout_(Swindon).

The sensible way to reach Swindon is, of course, by train.

Walk from the station to the surviving Railway Village, built in the early years of the Great Western Railway as a company town, New Swindon, alongside the line and the works, away from the original market town, Old Swindon.

The rows of terraced houses, with gardens, are now carefully looked after, unlike the desperately neglected, historically important Mechanics’ Institute (1855;  extended 1892) [http://www.bbc.co.uk/wiltshire/content/image_galleries/swindon_mechanics_institute_gallery.shtml?1, http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?t=41501 and http://www.derelictplaces.co.uk/main/showthread.php?t=3228].

Walking through the subway under the railway tracks into the area that was the great railway works is a poignant experience.  On the other side of the tracks, sturdy stone buildings from the days of Gooch, Dean and Churchward stand alongside modern structures with names such as ‘Heritage Plaza’.  Some of the site is occupied by those great wealth-generators, English Heritage and the National Trust.  Walk through the door of one building and you’re immediately in the midst of John Lewis’ furniture department:  this is the Swindon Designer Outlet [http://www.swindondesigneroutlet.com], which has the GWR locomotive 7918 Hinton Manor as a backdrop to the food court.

Across the way, STEAM – the Museum of the Great Western Railway [http://www.steam-museum.org.uk] is superb, capturing the noise and busy-ness of the great works in a restricted space, and telling its story with breadth and wit.  It’s a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours, with plenty to occupy children and big kids.  I worked the signals and points to let the Royal Train past, because there was too much of a queue to drive an engine.

That said, there’s nothing much to eat inside the Museum, though there is a National Trust café, more department-store than country-house, in Heelis, their headquarters across the way which is named after the author Beatrix Potter, Mrs William Heelis [http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-trust/w-thecharity/w-new_central_office/w-new_central_office-heelis.htm].

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.