Monday 28 December 2015

If you go down in the woods today

Rather hot-looking teddy bear taking a rest at Leicester
North station
Between Leicester and Loughborough runs the only stretch of preserved double-track main line in the country, the former Great Central line which once ran all the way to London Marylebone, duplicating the older Midland main line for much of the way. It has been reopened by enthusiasts to show main line steam and heritage diesel trains in their proper setting. I have wanted to visit it properly ever since I paid a brief visit when it was in an embryonic state in the mid-1970s, and now that it has reached Leicester and I am living in Stamford a visit was not hard to arrange: I just needed a free day in the summer and in many ways I could not have chosen a better day if I had tried. It was one of those warm, sunny, dry days that are perfect for a day out, and I planned my trip as well as I could: train to Leicester, bus to somewhere near where I thought the new "Leicester North" terminus  of the preserved Great Central Railway was (actually the site of a station originally known as Belgrave and Birstall), and then such rides on the Great Central as I had time to make, with opportunities to photograph working main line heritage trains. A grand day out, I hoped.

I bought my ticket to Leicester and waited for the train, indicated on time at Stamford station, but the time came and went and the next train was shown without mine turning up. I want and enquired at the ticket office and was told that it was delayed by a broken-down freight train and that the indicating equipment was faulty. There was no way of knowing how long it would be. In fact it was about fifty minutes late; I had taken a Delay Repay form "just in case" and expected to apply for a partial refund because of a delay exceeding thirty minutes. However, the train lost more time on the way owing to losing its "path" between other trains and it was getting close to the sixty minute threshold for further compensation and just exceeded it when it arrived in Leicester!

The Teddy Bear Special approaches Leicester North through the Down arch
of the bridge which used to give access to Belgrave & Birstall station: the
bricked-up entrance doorway is clearly visible. Steps would have led down
to a platform between the Up and Down lines in Great Central, LNER and
BR days
The timing did not matter on this trip, though. I had no particular return time in mind and the weather was fantastic. I made my way to the bus station (Leicester has two: researching the buses was an adventure in itself) and caught a bus that took me to where Belgrave and Birstall station used to be. I walked along the lane to where it crossed the railway and there was the distinctive doorway in the middle of the bridge, but no stairway down to the platform - the new station was of a totally different design and clearly intended to be approached from the other end. No matter, there was a (downhill!) walk alongside the line to the new station entrance and I strolled along there in the sunshine and explored.

It took me a while to realise that this red locomotive was a
LMS Class 8F for these were always black. I asked the driver
why it was red and he simply explained that it was the
property of a lady ...
There was visitor centre with refreshments separate from the station, and for the first time in my long experience of visiting preserved railways there were more women there than men - it was a weekday and the railway was promoting a Teddy Bears' Picnic day so the stations were full of mothers with young children, often two families together. All the usual activity of a preserved railway were going on alongside the teddy bear stuff, though, and a pint of real ale was still available to be quaffed in the restored British Railways Mk1 Griddle Car in the train that soon arrived at the single platform of this makeshift terminus, hauled by a red-painted LMS 8F. The locomotive ran round its train and we were off along the initial single-track stretch, pint in hand.

The train called at Rothley, the first of the restored stations on the line, with the distinctive GCR design: an island platform with a staircase down from an entrance on a road over bridge at one end, and it was here that we entered the double-track preserved main line. This station is the smallest and simplest and is restored in Great Central Railway condition.

After Rothley the train eventually crosses Swithland Reservoir on two low viaducts punctuated by a small island. This is probably the most scenic stretch of the line and if you travel on one of the dining trains you will find yourself stationary on this crossing for part of the duration of your meal so that you can enjoy the view. Ordinary trains like this one, though, simply cross the water and eventually arrive at Quorn and Woodhouse station, restored in London & North Eastern Railway condition. Again the GCR standard design of station but this one is slightly more complex.

Finally the train arrives at its current terminus at Loughborough Central, a much larger and more complex station but still with the distinctive island platform design. Here the station main building is at street level, built across the tracks and still with access off the road over bridge, with stairs leading down from the booking hall to the platform. No thought of step-free access for prams and wheelchairs in the days these stations were built! Must have been interesting for all those parents (mostly young women) with buggies etc for the teddy bear day - I hope most of them started at Leicester, a 21st century station, and then stayed on the railway. Loughborough station was decorated in British Railways Eastern Region style, the last it will have worn before its closure as a main line station.

I spent some time at Loughborough Central photographing the locomotives and coaches and exploring the station and locomotive shed which visitors were allowed and encouraged to tour. Two trains were in use: the one on which I had come, with BR maroon coaches and matching 8F steam locomotive, and one with BR Southern Region green coaches with a Brush type 2 (class 31) diesel locomotive painted light brown ("desert sand," I think they called it). The buffet on the platform at Loughborough was selling a specially-brewed ale and I bought a pint of that while I awaited the departure time for my train back - I had decided to travel back on the green one - but I was not fond of that particular beer, I'm sorry to say.

On the way back my train passed the other one at Quorn and Woodhouse station, the two trains pulling away simultaneously, an experience unique to this preserved railway.

At Leicester North I walked off to find a bus back to the city centre: so easy in this mobile internet age, with an app that finds my nearest bus stop and tells me when and where the buses are going. I spent some time photographing some of the city centre buildings (I am interested in inter-war moderne and art deco style) and caught my Cross Country train home. A satisfying day in decent warm weather and exploring places I'd seldom been. I'd recommend a day on the Great Central to anyone with an interest in English history, geography or railways.

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