This is about an astonishing private railway. If you’re not interested in industrial heritage and railways, look away now. Scroll down if you want to skip the chat and just see the pictures! (Click on any picture to see it full-sized)
I can just remember as a very small child in the late 1950s being taken to a private narrow-gauge railway in Kent that ran through the woodlands not far from my home. It made a huge impression on me – the smoke and steam, the hot oil, the little tracks disappearing off into the woods.
Last Saturday (8 August) I was able to visit something on a much vaster scale – the Statfold Barn Railway in the Midlands. As a subscriber to the Railway Magazine, I was offered the chance to be there for a private ‘enthusiasts’ day.
I can’t quite think of the right superlatives for this experience:
- I counted ten engines in steam (I may have lost track, there were so many.)
- There was an intensive service – something moving or within earshot all day.
- There was no officious ‘health and safety’ presence – barriers, stewards etc – you could just wander about, even in the engine sheds.
- The locos, coaches and wagons (yes, there was freight) were absolutely spotless – in ex-works condition.
- The intricacy of the track network (most of it is dual-gauge – 2′ and 2′ 6″) was a wonder to behold.
The man behind this railway paradise is Graham Lee. I can only imagine how many staff and volunteers he needs to put on a day like this. His commitment and finance have provided the immense engineering effort involved in getting the engines and wagons into the pristine condition that you see in the photos.
He started with a simple garden railway – 2′ gauge – running around a lake in the garden. That’s where I took my first ride, with a delightful vertical-boiler engine Paddy, recently restored.
Before that, I had discovered the engine shed area. Locos were coming and going all the time for coal and servicing as they came off trains on the ‘main line’ that runs through the farm fields to a loop about half a mile away.It was great to be trusted enough to be able to just wander around this busy yard.
Mr Lee has rescued many of the engines from dereliction in far-off countries. Some 15 years ago, he repatriated some engines that had been running in Indonesia on 2′ 6″ sugar plantation lines. So now he had to deal with two gauges. This makes all the pointwork very intricate, and (I suspect) an engineering nightmare. On his first Statfold main line everything can handle both gauges.
Graham Lee’s particular interest is products of the Hunslet company in Leeds, and his first ‘rescue’ was Trangkil No 4, the last ever steam engine built in Britain for ordinary commercial use (pic below). Hunslet built it in 1971. He now has 5 working Hunslet locos – not to mention a dozen or so other engines built in the UK, France, Germany and the USA. Narrow-gauge lovers would recognise one or two engines from the Welsh preserved lines or other industrial sites.
Trangkil No 4 is one of a family of Kerr Stuart designs. Kerr Stuart were subsumed into Hunslets, and one of my rarer books is A Hunslet Hundred, written for the centenary of the company in 1964 by the engineer and preservation pioneer LTC Rolt. Their ‘Brazil’, ‘Tattoo’ and ‘Wren’ designs have the same basic outline as the Talyllyn’s Edward Thomas which achieved literary fame as Peter Sam on the Revd W Awdry’s ‘Skarloey Railway’.
The thing has grown so much that in recent years a second main line was laid, parallel to the first. So the whole network (not too ambitious a word) can really get very busy. At one point I saw two passenger trains and a freight in the loop at the far end. Even in the heyday of narrow-gauge operation in the UK, such a scene was probably unknown.
The detail of the restoration and construction of the line and the rolling stock is amazing to see. The freight train was a particular favourite. Really keen types will have noticed that the train had wagons of both gauges within it, as well as some exhibition-quality finishing details.
Halfway along the main lines is Oak Tree Halt. This is where trains cross, so it’s busy. It’s also where you can get off to visit the Grain Store. It sounds agricultural, but it’s actually a treasure trove of narrow-gauge materials and railway ephemera. Lord knows how much it is all worth.
There’s a whole round-house in there! Some fully working, others in the queue to be restored.
So, three cheers to Mortons Media, publishers of The Railway Magazine, (click here to visit their site) and to Mr Lee, for making it possible for us to enjoy this fantastic piece of railway mania! (click here to visit Statfold Barn Railway site)
I’ll finish with two last pictures. Note the quality of the paintwork on the engines and the freedom of access given to visitors…
*Smoke gets in your eyes: 1933 Broadway show song – think the Platters, Bryan Ferry, or plenty of others in between.