Sunday, 21 July 2013

Sun, Steam & Shakespeare...

Hello everyone. Today we were booked to dine on the "Shakespeare Express": Vintage Trains' regular summer Sunday steam service between Birmingham and Stratford-upon-Avon. We had been booked on the express for some time and I for one had been looking forward to it. After a car ride up the M6 and then along the A38 into the centre of Birmingham, we arrived in Livery Street where Snow Hill Station is accessed. Parking is on a neat multi-storey above the platforms and, having parked, you simply walk down the stairs onto the platform to await your train. At about 9:40am the ECS for the first "Shakespeare" run of the day arrived. Owing to the recent hot weather, Network Rail had enforced a ban on steam locomotives. The only way around this ban was to include a diesel in the consist and many of this weekends rail-tours ran in this manner to avoid cancellation. Therefore, when the ECS pulled in it was headed by Tyseley's Class 47: 47 773. The immaculate GWR Hall Class 4-6-0 No4965 "Rood Ashton Hall" was on the rear of the train, ready to work the tender first leg to Stratford. The shining 4-6-0 simmered quietly at what was now the head of the train, whilst passengers stood admiringly alongside her...
This Hall has to be the best kept of the class in preservation: she's immaculate from front to back. A mate of mine; Tom; was firing 4965 on the first return journey and kindly invited me up onto the footplate for a look around before departure. I was surprised at how 4965 sat so quietly under Snow Hill's drab concrete roof, simply feathering at the safety valves with a semi-dead but hot fire. Tom explained the various kit required to operate a main line steam locomotive on Network Rail metals in the modern world, such as TPWS, GSMR and of course a 'Black Box' which records Speed, Steam Chest Pressure and Braking Force. Gone are the days when all steam loco's had to guide them were Semaphore signals and the experience of the Driver. Driver today was Ray Churchill, who is known to drive about 90% of the 'Shakespeare's during their summer season. I tell you what, it was warm on that footplate, even with a small fire in the box!...
Having been dragged off the footplate by the hungry family, we wandered up to the two Pullman cars to find our table for four in 'Premier Dining'. The menu for the day was handed around the well prepared table...
At 10:23am, 4965 gave a blast of her Great Western whistle before departing from Snow Hill, whilst we enjoyed our first course of Breakfast. The loco eased gently down through the gloomy tunnel into the restored station at Moor Street, where the second pick-up is made. Having left Moor Street there is a gentle run to Tyseley, which is home of 4965 and Tyseley Loco Works. Other engines based at Tyseley include "Clun Castle", "Earl of Mount Edgecumbe" and the two 'main line' Panniers: 7752 & 9600. Leaving her home station, 4965 swung tender first onto the North Warwickshire Line, bound for Henley-in-Arden. A hearty full English breakfast was served in Pullman Class as the Hall steamed gracefully through beautiful countryside. The breakfast was followed by another hot cuppa' before arrival at Stratford right on time. As usual with rail-tours there was a mad rush to see the locomotive and so I made an effort to avoid the route taken by the main rabble as I left the Pullman Car...
One of the Met-Cam Pullman Cars Used By VTL
Built at Swindon in 1929, "Rood Ashton Hall" worked until December 1963. She was restored to full working order by 1998 and spent 10 cracking years on the main line with Vintage Trains, mainly on the "Shakespeare Express". Owing to the immaculate condition which the locomotive is kept in, and its maintenance program, the 10-year overhaul took only a few months and the loco was re-certified for main line work in October 2009. Interestingly, 4965 had an identity change in 1962, to carry the name of scrapped sister No4983 "Albert Hall". During the restoration of 4983 it was discovered that she had the frames of 4965 and so the debate began. Click HERE for the full story of an 'Engine in Two Halves'. Anyway, back to today, the immaculate Hall was uncoupled very quickly and the large ejector was soon heard roaring away, taking off the vacuum brakes as the engine prepared to back away...
Having reversed under the bridge and up to the buffer stops, the points were changed and 4965 was given the clear to run round. Here she is having a bark away from the buffer stops looking beautiful...
...And then running under the bridge in full flight...
A Good Run-Round, Sounding Great
With 4965 clear of the station, permission was given for her to back down again. Once coupled up to the Class 47, preparations began for the departure towards Birmingham. We left the loco smoking away as we walked into historic Stratford. We spent the afternoon trotting around the various shops and river walkways. It was so busy and absolutely full of tourists: there must be a good economy here!...
River Scene at Stratford
At about 2:40pm I decided to head back towards the station to try and capture 4965 coming in on 'Train C', from Birmingham, passing 'Shakespeare's Birthplace' on my way...
Right on time at just gone 3pm, 4965 appeared into view and hissed into Stratford with the afternoon "Shakespeare"...
Under the footbridge she went, slowing to a stop...
With 4965 preparing to run round again, the Class 47 ticked over at the head of the train in preparation for the 4:13pm departure. The green diesel was driven by Ray Poole: his job was to ensure that 4965 didn't work "too hard" and set fire to any neighbouring fields...
At Stratford, the Support Crew take a well-earned breather in the sun, waiting to water 4965...
The attractive headboard for the "Shakespeare Express" is worn proudly on each run...
Once attached again, 4965 basked in the sun, looking beautiful...
Whilst on the platform at Stratford I got chatting to Alistair Meanley: son of Tyseley supremo Bob Meanley. He praised the Hall for its reliability and popularity but remarked on the difficulty of pathing an engine like this around on modern railways. The problem is not the speed of the engine but her GWR pedigree, as Swindon's Hall's had very large cylinders which swelled out from the frames more than Midland engines for example. This factor prevents 4965 from running on many parts of the national network, though she has strayed to countless places over her 13 years on the main line. Following on from her immaculate exterior is her immaculate footplate. Just look at those controls, not only are they sparkling clean but the floor is well swept and even the cups are clean on the tea tray...I suppose if you keep on top of these things its so much easier to keep an immaculate engine...if expensive on polish!...
As departure time neared we decided to board the Pullman Cars again for our "High Tea". This included a hot chicken dinner (which was very tasty and filling) with vegetables, followed by Strawberries & Cream. Naturally a real ale was called for...
The return run doesn't take in the North Warwickshire Line. Instead the Hall takes a trundle along the branch line to Claverdon before joining the main Birmingham - Oxford line at Hatton North Junction. From here the 4-6-0 can stretch her legs up to 60mph on the fast line through Lapworth and Solihull...
Countryside on the Claverdon Branch
After our "tea", a cup of tea was served with an after-dinner mint as 4965 raced along at 60mph...she really was going for it, but effortlessly. This is why we pay for main line steam...
Though 4965 was running well, all too soon it was time for Ray Churchill to shut-off steam and start applying the brakes, slowing for Tyseley. A further stop at Moor Street was followed by journeys-end at Snow Hill Station, about 7 hours after we initially left. As quickly as I could I ran up to the front of the train and caught 4965 wearing the headboard before she disappeared off to run round. Now that is a beautiful engine...
No4965 "Rood Ashton Hall", The "Shakespeare Engine"
All in all it had been a fantastic day. You can't really beat Pullman Class, I know its more expensive but you do get some fantastic food and the service & atmosphere is great. The "Shakespeare Express" is really one to be recommended and it will be running every Sunday until early September. See www.vintagetrains.co.uk for details. Thanks very much for reading guys and thank you to VTL for a cracking day out with "Rood Ashton hall". Cheers, Sam...

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