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Early days on the Bluebell

Personal recollections from Mike South,
with particular reference to the LSWR Gate Stock saga

The end of LSWR gate stock, Set 373, was disgraceful. By 1958 its two coaches were the sole survivors of the original 31 "Gate" stock coaches, both built new by the LSWR and rebuilt by them from their abortive steam railmotors. The Luftwaffe had carelessly disposed of eight in June 1941, when they bombed Portland, Dorset, but time and wear had progressively taken care of the rest. After her stint on the Clapham Junction to Kensington (Olympia) service, Set 373 gravitated back to the West, spending some time on the Yeovil Junction to Yeovil Town, Wareham to Swanage, Seaton Junction to Seaton and Axminster to Lyme Regis branches.

Following a staring role behind Beattie 2-4-0 Well Tank 30587 at the Centenary celebrations for Exeter Central station on 19th. July 1960, Mr. John Leroy, then President of the embryonic Bluebell Railway Preservation Society, thought he had purchased both coaches for preservation on the Horsted Keynes to Sheffield Park line. But it was not to be. In October 1960, while stored on a siding at Crediton, they were officially withdrawn after having suffered some minor immersion damage when the River Creedy went on one of its periodic rampages. Unaware of this, but aware of the Bluebell's interest, imagine my elation when on the way home from school one Friday evening I saw the set in Eardley Sidings. The next afternoon, for we still had school on Saturday mornings then, I was on my bike and over the fence to inspect them. Apart from some mustiness, not uncommon in older coaches, I could certainly see no signs of terminal damage. And besides, they had safely made the trip up from Devon. Much later I was to learn that the Driving Brake Third from the set had even made a few solo trips up and down the Yeovil Junction to Yeovil Town branch, whilst in transit from Devon to London.

By the following Monday they had gone... to the scrappers' bonfire at Newhaven Town's voracious North Quay sidings. By way of consolation the British Transport Commission assured me that one set of gate ironwork had been preserved for eventual display at Clapham Museum. But several visits and repeated enquiries over the years failed to turn up any trace of them. The whole sad story is remarkably akin to that of Stratford Works wanton destruction in 1957 of officially preserved ex-Wisbeach & Upwell Tramway bogie coach No. 8, a type imortalised by sister coach No. 7 in Ealing Studios, classic comedy film "The Titfield Thunderbolt". In both cases local officials acted directly contrary to instructions from higher up because they thought they knew best.

I remember how upset ('apoplectic' would not be too strong a word) John Leroy was when British Railways told him about their little "misunderstanding".


The early days in general

Has anybody ever written an unexpurgated history of the early days of the Bluebell? Stirring stuff!

Who could ever forget those early meetings in Haywards Heath's "tin tabernacle", the Fred Tallant Hall. Or Horace May's bombastic (but essentially well meaning) impersonation of somebody who knew what they were doing. Or the imbecilic reporter from the 'Daily Sketch', to whom my father patiently explained on Opening Day why 'Stepney' was called 'Stepney', only to be greeting in print the next day by the photocaption "...inexplicably named 'Stepney'". Or the day we had THREE emergency deliveries of 'Walls' ice cream to the old Maunsell Restaurant Car marooned in the end loading dock and broke all the ice cream sales records for the sales region. Or constantly washing up the same dozen or so old assorted teaspoons culled from my grandma's 'odds & sods' drawer, because in those days proper tea was served in cups, on saucers, with a spoon - or else!

Or that wonderful old Brighton driver and true gent Ralph Stent and his tales of whacking off clouds of pre-myxamatosis bunny rabbits on the trackside with well aimed lumps of coal (more than one home fire was kept burning with the unsuccessful projectiles, yet the 'score' rate was also amazingly high). Or that delightful rascal Fred Miles, castaway by Waterloo to Horsted Keynes into his very own little Buggleskelly-like world of village intrigue and somnolent inactivity - occasionally interrupted by shuttling 2-BILs on their lackadaisical way to and from Seaford. Or the 'patent' Turnerised wood-&-canvas carriage roof repairing schemes that turned out to be such a disaster.

Or firing on Richard Gomm's 'Dukedog', when it was a race to get to the other end of the line before all the water poured out of the incredibly rust-wasted tender. Or the happy oaf who sawed off one end of a vintage LBSCR starter signal arm to better balance it, being quite unable to work out how to adjust the balance weight arms. Or riding the North London tank up through dripping cuttings, as track panels were being unceremoniously ripped out on what is now the 'Northern Extension'.

2Bil at Horsted Keynes

Keith Harwood took this photo of 2-BIL electric unit No 2098 at Horsted Keynes in the early 1960s.
No.323 "Bluebell" is visible on what was then the Bluebell side of the station.

I also remember slapping an instant coat of blue paint onto the first two BR castoff coaches days before the Opening, stripping and painting the SECR 'Birdcage' in the overgrown loading dock at Sheffield Park, and Richard Hearne ("Mr. Pastry") making his one and only mad dash up to Freshfield with a Maunsell Brake and the Aveling & Porter 'Blue Circle'.

The Russians
Then there was the day when 'SuperMac' (Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, Esq., to you), who lived at nearby 'Birch Grove', (what a coincidence!) turned up quite unannounced with a couple of senior Russian diplomats who were visiting for a country house weekend of intrigue. Fortunately, Horace was 'off' that afternoon, otherwise the fawning would have been unbearable! One of the Russians had been a Stakhanovite fireman on Russian railways in his formative years, which was how he had gained his first leg up in The Party. He was truly delighted to fire the Adams Radial, whilst Macmillan and the rest of the party 'rode the cushions' in the train behind, with their ice creams and a couple of surly 'minders' from MI5 or wherever in the next compartment. All very low key and informal, and this at the very height of the 'Cold War', when Russian diplomats weren't ever allowed to wander more than 20 miles from their Embassy - period! I often wondered what little piece of covert diplomacy was in prospect that afternoon.

Happy days!

Mike South.


Postscript - Mike died, after a long fight with cancer, in the early hours of Tuesday 25th August 2009. He had become the leading light and inspiration amongst a group of LBSCR/SR modellers in Calgary, Canada, and a well respected member of the Southern E-mail Group.

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Return to Bluebell Home Page, to the Timetable or to Special Events
Personal Recollections of the Bluebell Line: Daniel Wilson - Martin J.N. Payne - Martin Ternouth - Early Bluebell Days: Mike South
Biography: Frederick Hutchings - 50 years with the LBSCR, SR & BR

History of the Bluebell:- L&EGR - Early Days 1 - Early Days 2 - Early Days 3 - Early Days 4 - Kingscote Station - Fenchurch
Track Layouts through the years: Horsted Keynes - West Hoathly - Kingscote. More to come later!
Map showing how the line relates to other railways in the locality.
The Extension


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Valid HTML 3.2! Text © Copyright Mike South, Photo © Copyright Keith Harwood. 5 July 2002
Last updated 26 August 2009 by Richard Salmon.
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