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Faster Than You Think.....

An account of a journey behind Clan Line Down the South Western Main Line by the late Peter Knottley.

Peter contributed much to the Locomotive and Carriage Institution over a numbers of years and is perhaps best remembered for the very professionally produced Annual Reports of a few years ago.  Sadly Peter passed away in January 2005.

This piece by Peter is published as a ‘thank you' for all his sterling work for the Institution,

Thank you Peter.


Wonderful.  "Clan Line” must remember the Waterloo to Salisbury line quite well after the service it saw on it years ago.  My friends sometimes say in jest, if they wonder where my journeying are taking me, that "he's probably on the South Western main line ...", as it has been my stamping ground for ... well, for quite a long time, comparable to the 50 years of running which 35028 celebrated with its Bristol trip on 28th March 1998.

A bad attack of nostalgia occurred therefore when the green train with a Bulleid Pacific at the front pulled out of Waterloo and, due to signals, made rather slow progress towards Clapham Junction.  Suburban electrics overtook us - a situation which would soon be reversed.  At Clapham Junction as a younger boy many happy hours were spent at the end of platform five ("CJ5" - long ago renumbered nine) in the company of several like-minded youths, among them one who has for about 50 years been know as "Len of Sutton".

My school lay (and still lies) between the divergence of the Brighton and South Western main lines at Clapham Junction, an establishment that could hardly be better placed for the railway enthusiast pupil.  Our little band used to compete for knowledge of what was going on and made such interesting discoveries as the fact that on a busy summer Saturdays an Exmouth Junction ‘King Arthur’ would work through to Waterloo.  They did not normally get east of Salisbury - and sighting one was a great thrill.

We also learned the rudiments of railway operation when we noticed, for example, that a loco which went down to, say, Bournemouth, on a certain working usually returned on the same one (and if it didn't, an interesting substitute might appear).

But "Clan Line” is not hanging about and is approaching Wimbledon at some speed.  Wimbledon - to which our bicycles sometimes took us; to the line-side path on the up side and its footbridges - splendid vantage points.  There was usually shunting in the West Yard there, too; perhaps an ancient (even then) Adams 0-6-0 of class 0395 dating form the 1880's.  (My bicycle takes me there sometimes to this day, but the yard is no more).

I was speaking to the driver of one of the last electric trains to leave Wimbledon for West Croydon just prior to the line's closure to make way for the Tramlink.  He told me that he had been on the railway for almost 50 years and had fired and driven the old 0-6-0's and other LBSC and LSW steam engine classes which worked locally in far-off days.

New Maiden - where the footbridge over the line the London side of the station has a special significance for me: it was from it on one dark wartime evening that I saw my first "Merchant Navy".  I had heard that one was working into London at that time each day, and when I saw the train approaching way down the line from Berrylands with an engine the route code head lamps of which did not flicker, I knew that it was an MN with electric lighting.  It was 21C3 "Royal Mail", and the excitement of the moment is easily recaptured.

Now “Clan Line" is making the platform newspaper readers of Surbiton glance up as we roar through and head for Woking and then Brookwood, where in the vast cemetery lie the remains of the doughty Dugald Drummond, sometime LSWR Chief Mechanical Engineer.  Some enginemen used to maintain that they sometimes saw his ghost as they passed.  His grave was refurbished and rededicated as recently as 1995.

It always seems a special moment when the train takes the line to the West at Worting Junction, rushing under the Battledown flyover (can it be true that they are talking about replacing it with a flat junction?) and leaving the electrics behind.  Surely the train is going faster than you think, soon recovering from a slack at Oakley to pass Andover and to reach Salisbury with a little time in hand.

From here all the way to Exeter the main fine passes through perhaps the finest unspoiled "domestic" countryside left in England, out of sight of the destruction of much of it to the south by the embryo Folkestone - South West motorway.

At Salisbury they have bought a bit more hosepipe, so that the tender of 35028 can be replenished without uncoupling and running into the bay platform to get near the hydrant.  Here I once took a photograph of the late Bert Hooker, of which legendary engineman it may be said with much greater justification that the South Western main line was a favourite haunt.

We resume by taking the route of the former brown railway (GWR) to Warminster, through the lovely Vale of Wylye.  There were once five stations between Salisbury and Warminster, but all vanished long ago.  How station closures connect with getting people back on the railway escapes me.

Through stone-train Westbury, then Trowbridge and Bradford-on-Avon, where the Spencer-Moulton Company made suspensions, buffing gear etc. for Brunel a century and a half ago.  It is quite possible that "Clan Line" today has certain parts of its coupling and buffer equipment containing Bradford-on-Avon materials (now Avon Rubber Co., successors to Spencer Moulton).

Dr Alex Moulton, renowned engineer, inventor of suspension systems for vehicles including bicycles - and of many other transport innovations still independently carries on the family tradition there.

As we get towards Bristol we see that the trackbed of the former LMSR across the river is now a cycle path in the Saltford area.

We have three hours in Bristol whilst 35028 is fed and watered.  Some of the fortunate passengers aboard the anniversary special have already disposed of a great British breakfast and a lunch on the move, and will enjoy a full dinner on the way home.  The organisation of a trip like this is very complex, and all concerned are offered sincere thanks for a job well done.  The Merchant Navy Preservation Society must be the premier for keeping its locomotive always in superb condition inside and out, Hertfordshire Railtours do the impossible by bringing everything together on the day, and caterers, Railtrack and many others contribute to a successful and memorable excursion.

My trip to Severn Beach and back during the Temple Meads layover proved an interesting contrast in passenger comfort and track condition.

Past the sites of many more stations as we hurry from Bristol out to Chipping Sodbury tunnel then slow for Wootton Bassett junction before taking Swindon at good speed, noting a solitary GW tender outside what remains of the former works, at the point where many locomotives used to stand.  By Didcot 35028 needs another drink, and the local fire brigade is on hand to top up the tender.

We stand on the up relief line whilst this takes place.  The Great Western never had “slow" lines, a second line always being a "relief', a usage which survives today, always having been used in GWR and BR days.

At Didcot a passenger was heard to remark that not much could be seen from the train of the Great Western preservation site.  Another rejoined that he hoped that those on the site could manage to see what a proper engine looked like!

Everything went so well and water taking occupying less time than scheduled that we were now running ahead of time and the diners were having to speed up a bit to “get it all in".

Several signal checks culminated in our being brought to dead stand on the steep climb from Acton Main Line to Acton Wells, but this only served to show the high ability of "Clan Line and its crew.  The train stopped without any hint of a run back of even a centimetre, and got away again with no trace of slip or hesitation.

I do not know if the next Eurostar was late away, but we were held again - early - on the Sheepcote Lane curve, restored for the purpose of permitting Eurostars to get to and from North Pole depot from Waterloo.  After quite a long delay waiting for our platform to become available at Waterloo, we eventually slid round the corner and made good speed to the terminus.

Maybe time does go faster than you think too - but riding behind "Clan Line is time well spent and renewed thanks to all who made it possible.

Peter Knottley, April 1998