Train spotting for me started in the 1950s during visits to my grandparents in Leeds. Locomotive numbers seen along the journey from Kings Cross to Leeds were carefully noted and, once at Leeds, hours were spent by the line at Copley Hill shed and at Leeds City station. But home was nearest to the BR Western Region main line at Southall in Middlesex, and that is where the spotting really took off. The glittering prizes were the named steam engines and we had plenty to choose from at the time – 30 in the King class, 164 Castles, 299 Halls, 80 Granges and 30 Manors. Many hours were spent on the footbridge at Southall which offered excellent views of the lines out of Paddington and traffic into and out of Southall engine shed.
Southall footbridge, with spotters, and an unidentified “King” class locomotive working the “Capitals United Express” to Cardiff in spring 1962. Southall engine shed is in the background. Photo: Mike Peart.
Visits to engine sheds were the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, with the principal sheds/motive power depots offering the best prospects. In my case it was Old Oak Common shed in London which provided the motive power for Paddington’s trains. Official visits could be arranged by applying to the Running & Maintenance Officer at Paddington for a permit. Unofficial visits (known as “bunking”) were simply done by walking in and trying to look like part of the furniture while surreptitiously noting numbers! It helped to be tall and wearing something that looked vaguely like railway uniform, and I qualified on both counts and was only ignominiously ejected once. In spotting days with the help of Rail Rovers I certainly visited well over 30 engine sheds around Britain, not always officially, and we had “The British Locomotive Shed Directory” to guide us. The BR advert on the back of this guide invited young people like me to do “a Man’s job in a vital industry”. Added to this shed tally were the visits to locomotive works which usually did need a permit. In my case I almost had a season ticket to Swindon Works where it was possible to find locomotives from far-flung parts of BR Western Region that wouldn’t normally be seen in the London area. During my many visits there I saw NRM exhibit 92220 “Evening Star” being built in 1959/60 and, sadly, many of the named steam locomotives starting to be scrapped as dieselisation took over.
In my mid-teens I took to railway photography rather than spotting, and this was quickly followed by an interest in preservation. The railway scene was changing fast and I and others wanted to preserve locomotives, rolling stock and artefacts of the steam era and photograph as much as possible whilst it lasted. While doing this, I had in the back of my mind locomotives which had eluded me as a spotter. In my case it was one of the “Castle” class number 5050 “Earl of St Germans”, the last of the 164 to be seen. I had seen all the Kings, all but about five of the Halls and I’d underlined most of the Granges and Manors in the Ian Allan spotters’ books. But 5050 had a reputation for mystery and hiding until I eventually saw her at Exeter and got photographic evidence.
The interest in preservation which I shared with so many others has resulted in the heritage railway and museum collections that we have now. Possibly influenced by the BR adverts I started work on Western Region in 1962. As a railway employee I discovered that steam enthusiasts like me weren’t popular as my region was moving rapidly – some say disastrously- into diesel hydraulic traction. In fact, I was told in a message from the diesel enthusiast General Manager that if I wanted to advance my railway career I had to decide between preservation or promotion! My eyesight chose for me as it wasn’t good enough for railway operations, so I became a former railwayman. At least this gave me the freedom to preserve, and I was a founder member of the Great Western Society (Didcot Railway Centre) which marks its 60th anniversary this year. Among the many exhibits we have at Didcot is the chimney from 5050!
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