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More Memories of Retford (and other places)
in the 50s and 60s

by Peter Chadwick

Christmas 1951. I was 4 years old, and I knew I was getting a train set. My godfather and my father were locked away in the front room; I wasn't allowed in for a while. Then, what a train set! A terminal station with an island platform with a bay on one side, and a main platform with a loco siding at the 'down' end, all built onto a 6 foot by 2 foot board, and with track stretching onto the dining room table to form a loop. Then there were two locos, both of them Hornby Dublo 3 rail. One of them was a GWR 57XX pannier tank, but the other, proudly standing at the head of two 'blood and custard' re-wheeled Trix coaches, (they were better than the HD tinplate) was Sir Nigel Gresley in Garter Blue, with 'LNER' on the tender, and a big number 7 on the cab side....

To some extent, these were still 'semi-austerity' years of recovery after WW2. This meant that some of the track was Hornby, while other parts were second hand Marklin 3 rail, and some of the baseboard track was Peco. My father built the controller: I can just about remember 'helping' him (as little boys do!) rewind the transformer - as it was a low voltage winding of about 15 volts, it would not have been too onerous a task. I suspect that Sir Nigel was somewhat old stock, obtained with some difficulty - quite a lot of 'luxury' items were not too easy to get. As if a train set for a boy could EVER be a 'luxury' item!

In late June of that year, we had a family holiday in Jersey. We were to travel on Saturday by the 'Channel Islands Boat Express' from Paddington to Weymouth somewhere about 8.30 am, and so it was decided that we would travel down the night before. Possibly the fact that in those days my father only got two weeks leave had something to do with this, but the train from Retford was somewhere about 11.30pm, and so I was sent to bed in the afternoon to get some sleep beforehand. This didn’t work out too well, because in those days, there was an RAF station (RAF Scofton) some 5 miles to the east, where they did flying training in Gloster Meteors – and they certainly weren't very quiet when they went over the house at about 1000 feet! Add to that the excitement, and it's not surprising that sleep eluded me.

60007 BrochureLeft: 4498 visited Weymouth in 1967, a fact noted in the 'End of Southern Steam' celebrations in July with 60019 featuring in the Mid-Hants Gala. It was suggested that '19' run with an SNGL Co Ltd headboard but in the end it didn't happen. This is the Souvenir brochure from 1967 thanks to our President's archive.

Eventually, we took the train to Retford and the London train came in. Of course, we stopped everywhere - for some reason, I definitely remember Crowe Park and Newark, but then fell asleep. As a result, I didn't see the engine change at Grantham (pretty well mandatory in those days!), but when we got to Kings Cross about 2.30 am, you can imagine my delight to see the loco was 60007, Sir Nigel Gresley. Even more of a delight was being allowed in the cab, and being shown the corridor tender, which I distinctly remember because at that time, I thought all the A4s had them. This led to later disillusionment of course, when I found out that not all the A4s were so fitted....

The onward journey from Paddington is not too distinct: I remember being surprised at the rails having a small pit between them for the effluent from sleeping car lavatories. It was a named train – the 'Channel Islands Boat Express', although as far as I know, it never had the dignity of a headboard. Castle-hauled, it usually ran to 16 ex-GWR 32 ton coaches, seating four-a-side in third class - as it was then. But the 'pièce de resistance' was definitely the pannier tank being attached at Weymouth Town, and the whole train (now 14 coaches, being less the restaurant and kitchen car – they may have had the 'WXQ' plates on them - 'Not to work on Weymouth Quay' and were in any case restocked) being drawn through the streets to dockside at Weymouth Quay. A man walked in front with a red flag, and the loco rang a bell all the way round. Tied up at the quay were the boats - the S.S. St Patrick with a red funnel and black top for Jersey, and either the older S.S St. Julian or S.S. St. Helier for Guernsey and then Jersey. The S.S St. Patrick was a much newer vessel with stabilisers, built in 1947 at Cammell Laird as a replacement for the GWR's S.S.St.Patrick sunk on June 13, 1941 in a bombing attack on the way from Rosslare to Fishguard - an incident where Stewardess E.M.Owen was awarded the George Medal and the Lloyd's War Medal for her bravery in repeatedly diving into submerged and sinking cabins to ensure the passengers were all out of them. The St. Patrick was used on the Channel Island sailings in summer, and on the Fishguard to Rosslare sailings in winter. The St. Helier and the St. Julian were both much older, and had a buff funnel with a black top.

There was also a pair of cargo boats - the Roebuck and the Sambur. These were especially busy during the summer, bringing over Jersey new potatoes and later in the season, tomatoes from both Jersey and Guernsey. There were also boats from Southampton to be seen in St. Helier and St. Peter Port – I think they had names like Isle of Sark and Isle of Jersey, and were ex Southern Railway.

We had a number of holidays in the Channel Islands, and in later years, travelled to Weymouth on a Friday. That was an easy journey - 08:08 from Worksop to Retford behind a B1, 09:03 from Retford, usually behind an A1 which was sometimes changed at Grantham, and about 13:15 from Paddington, stopping at Reading, Newbury, Westbury, Frome, Castle Cary, Yeovil Pen Mill, Dorchester and Weymouth. Several years running, the loco for that train was Westbury's 6994 Baggrave Hall, which ambled along quite happily with 5 or 6 coaches, returning on a turn that saw relief at Westbury and on to Swindon. In those days, the name Swindon had a sort of awe about it, akin to Doncaster or Derby or Crewe. These days, living near there, I know what an awful place it now is!

Returning from Guernsey was always a lengthy journey. The English Channel is not noted for its calm, and frequently, the boat would be late into Weymouth with a lot of seasick passengers aboard - me included! Then we went through customs where all the bags were inspected and a chalk mark placed on them - a far cry from today's Heathrow airport where you can be lucky to even see a Customs officer! Then it was onto the train. There were two Channel Islands boat trains, so you had to be careful to get on the correct one – the other went via Westbury, Bradford North Junction, Thingley Junction, Chippenham, Swindon, Didcot West Junction, Oxford, Banbury, Leamington, Birmingham Snow Hill and Wolverhampton, although I don't know where it stopped. We, on the other hand, wanted the London version of the boat train, which stopped only at Frome and Reading. The Frome stop invariably allowed a West of England Express, King-hauled, to overtake on the Frome Bypass - it was probably a non-stop to Paddington. The train would leave Weymouth Quay, pulled by a pannier tank, and slowly wend its way to Weymouth station. Incidentally, there was one place on the tramway where the curve had been eased: prior to that, according to my father who had seen it in the early 1920s, the couplings had to be loosened between the coaches because the curve was so tight. The panniers were sometimes the outside cylinder, short wheel base variety especially made for dockside lines, but on other occasions, a 57XX tank was used, although I don't think it went right out on the quay. At Weymouth Town, the kitchen and restaurant car would be attached at the rear, often by a BR standard tank, and the train engine attached on the front - and for several years running, that was Old Oak Common (81A) loco 5093, Upton Castle. With 16 coaches and a stiff climb up to Bincombe Tunnel, the tank engine at the back was working hard as a banker – and I doubt if the Castle's fireman had much rest, either. After that, it was head for Paddington.

As said earlier, the boat was frequently late, especially when there was any bad weather in the Channel. Nominally something like 3:30 off Weymouth Quay, a departure an hour to an hour and a half late wasn't uncommon when we travelled. As the journey relied on us getting the 8:19pm from Kings Cross, it was a constant worry as to whether or not we would make it. I remember one journey in about 1958 or 59 where we made up 45 minutes on schedule, which suggests that the schedule probably wasn't that exacting, and that the driver and fireman wanted to get home because it was Saturday night. For us, it meant moving to the very front of the train, followed by rapid rush down to the Circle line platform at Paddington, catching the 8:19 by the skin of the teeth, and then a taxi back from Retford at around 10.50 or so, and that was the end of the holiday.

About 1960 or 61, the boat train was re-routed. It now consisted of green Bulleid coaches, and went via the LSWR route to Waterloo. An abiding memory, even after all these years, was while the train was stationary in Basingstoke station, watching the 'ACE' (Atlantic Coast Express) come through with about 10 coaches behind a rebuilt Merchant Navy – a loco I always thought looked a lot better in its rebuilt form. From memory, we had an original 'Spam Can' West Country on the front.

Another holiday in the early '60s was to Ilfracombe. DMU to Sheffield Victoria, walk to Sheffield Midland, and down to Bristol Temple Meads via Chesterfield (look to see if there was anything on the GN line!) Derby, Burton on Trent (I hadn't developed a taste for beer then!) Birmingham New Street and the Lickey Incline, Cheltenham, avoiding Gloucester, and down the old Midland line to end in Temple Meads old station. There was an engine change at Birmingham New Street - from memory, from a Black 5 to a Jubilee. For some reason, this was on a Friday, and I have memories of endless coal trains headed by Stanier 8Fs waiting in loop lines for us to pass them. A Hall took us to Taunton, and I remember being slightly disappointed to find the engine to take us on to Ilfracombe via Venn Cross and Barnstaple was a 43XX 2-6-0 without a name. I certainly wouldn't be disappointed to find one to take me on that long-gone route today!

A 10 shilling (50p) 'Rover' ticket allowed travel over a lot of North Devon for a week, and I was able to ride a portion of the ACE to Exeter: the tablet exchange was interesting to watch, being carried out by hand at quite a reasonable speed. Exeter St. Davids was a busy station - again, a far cry from today – with plenty of Southern Region up trains passing through on the GW down roads and being banked by 0-8-0 tanks up to the high level Exeter Queen Street station.

By 1963 or so, steam was rapidly disappearing from the Sheffield/Worksop/Retford area. Passenger trains were nearly all formed from the ubiquitous DMU, with the occasional problems that a pair of coupled two car units would appear with one set unfit for use because of exhaust fume leakage into it. This led to the fun of joining the girls from Retford's County High School for Girls.... By far the worst DMUs were the Cravens units, with metal luggage racks, everything rattling and a décor of Formica that rapidly reached a state best described as 'tatty'. The first DMU that went through Worksop was in 1952, when one of the first Derby units came along: my father got special permission to take me out of school to see it, but we never seemed to have such smart units ten years later. All the DMUs were never cold though - it appeared that it was totally impossible to turn the heating off, even on the hottest summer days. It took some time before I found someone who could explain to me why they had a '2 pipe' vacuum system – the explanation was that the 'exhauster' wasn't as good at producing a vacuum as the steam ejector and so there were vacuum reservoirs and a vacuum pipe, combined with a control pipe to direct admission valves on the brake cylinders to speed things up. To this day, the concept of a reservoir of nothing (or actually something on a vague approach to nothing!) seems odd. Whether or not the explanation was correct, I don't know, but it does appear plausible, the more so after reading about 2 pipe Westinghouse systems, although the direct admission valves may not have been correct. It did mean that the right pipe had to be used when attaching the odd fish van in rear – fish still was delivered by rail in light blue 'Insulfish' vans, with the fish packed in ice in wooden boxes. Pigeons travelled in the Guards van, of course - another income for the railway.

I adopted an interest in radio in about 1955, and indeed, built my first receiver about then. However it wasn't until I was about 13 that I went on my own to a 'junk shop' in the Attercliffe Road in Sheffield. The trams were convenient from Sheffield Victoria station to the Attercliffe Road, while the Bo-Bo and Co-Co electrics on the 1500 volt electrified line to Manchester were busy, it only having been opened in 1955 after the rebuilding of Woodhead Tunnel and electrification throughout. On one of these trips, I did see the Master Cutler leaving Sheffield behind an extremely filthy V2, although I can't remember which one. This was, of course, shortly before it got re-routed away from the GC line to Marylebone, the opening of which in the late 1800s led to the comment that the 'Money Sunk and Lost' (Manchester Sheffield and Lincolnshire) had become the 'Gone Completely'. There was an occasional 'Director' class around Sheffield, too, but for some reason, these never seemed to venture as far to the east as Worksop or Retford.

Retford had four signal boxes. Whisker Hill Junction on the GC line west to Worksop was where the line curved sharply round to the station. Retford North was on the downside, and as the name suggests, was north of the station. Retford South, again on the downside, was south of the level crossing of the GC and the GN, and controlled both lines, while the other one (I have a feeling it was called Ordsall Lane) controlled a level crossing of four tracks with enormously long crossing gates just east of where the eastbound GC line crossed the River Idle: it controlled the access to the GC shed. It was, of course, all upper quadrant semaphore signalling. All the signal boxes (including the ones on the GC line east and west) were connected to the original GNR two tone Morse broadcast system. This used a simple sounder that deflected a needle to either 'ring' a high tone bar or a low tone bar: one was dashes and one was dots, although I can't remember which. I saw it in Worksop East box: my father could read it, although with difficulty, since it was a very different sound to the Morse he was used to using as a radio amateur, and as at that time, I hadn't learnt Morse, it meant little to me.

For some reason, I had a trip to Nottingham one day. There were few Midland Compounds and 2P 4-4-0s around and some tank engines. For some reason, the London expresses I saw only had Black 5 haulage, which somewhat surprised me: at that time, I expected to see Jubilees if not rebuilt Scots or even Britannias. I think I only ever saw about 6 Britannias, although I did see all the A4s, as well as W1 4-6-4 (60700), rebuilt from the experimental 10000.

It seems somehow strange that I can remember so vividly some of these events from 50 years ago, while forgetting happenings of more recent years, but that's the penalty of getting older.

Written by Peter Chadwick.
First published in Chime 146, Autumn 2007

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