Severn Valley Railway
PUBLISHED: 20:15 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:06 20 February 2013
Rachel Crow is whistled aboard the Severn Valley Railway - the service that has survived thanks to the love of steam enthusiasts the world over
The railway station cat lies snoozing under a trolley of vintage travelling chests and suitcases, oblivious to the gentle hum of activity around. On the platform, flowers in the carefully tended pots and hanging baskets bloom in the warming rays of the summer's morning, while 1940s posters of smiling bathers entice you to the traditional English seaside. As the birds chatter to each other from the station roof rafters, there's an atmosphere of a gentle, anticipation. Station staff in smart caps and waistcoats, rouse themselves from their soporific haze, consult their pocket watches and smiling cordially, guide passengers in the direction of the high-pitched whistle that lifts into the air. The majestic steam train, until this point sitting patiently hissing at the platform, heralds its imminent departure. Welcome to the Severn Valley Railway and a journey into nostalgia.
For four decades, the Severn Valley Railway has been playing an important role in British railway preservation. Today running tourist steam-hauled passenger trains the 16-mile route between Kidderminster in Worcestershire and Bridgnorth in Shropshire; originally it was a through route for passenger and freight transport from 1862 until 1963. But the advent of the motor car along with diesel railcars heralded its decline and eventual cessation.
At this point, had it not been for the efforts of a group of railway enthusiasts, this important part of railway history would most likely have been dismantled and lost forever. Forming the Severn Valley Railway Society at Kidderminster in 1965, they gradually bought sections of the track, reopening the line from Bridgnorth to Hampton Loade in May 1970, and extending in stages through to Highley, Arley and Bewdley, reaching Kidderminster in 1984.
Volunteer created, the SVR is still largely volunteer-operated. While a team of salaried staff deals with administration and maintenance, it is the volunteers who are responsible for feeding the engine of this timeless tourist attraction.
With 13,000 members worldwide, around 1,300 volunteers from all over the country give their time every year to don the hat of station master, ticket collector, dining porter, gardener, maintenance crew, fireman or driver, to feed their shared passion for steam trains and ensure the continued existence of this evocative reminder of a bygone age.
"I've always been interested in steam trains and railways, so when I took early retirement four years' ago decided to volunteer," notes 64-year-old Dave Harbridge. Volunteering two days a week as a member of station staff he provides an invaluable meet-and-greet duty alongside fellow member James Gilbert, who for eight years has been performing the same role four days a week. "The best part is seeing the children's faces because they've never seen a steam train before," says James.
Although many of the volunteers are of retirement age, there are those for whom working the railway provides a holiday from their full-time jobs.
In the engine cab today are jovial childhood friends, Dave Evans, 31 and Kev Cronin, 30. It's a team effort - Dave drives while Kev performs the labour intensive role of fireman, continually feeding the hungry engine fire with coal.
"I've been coming here since I was three weeks old because my father's a driver," says Kev, "Dave since he was eight."
For them, taking a week out of day-to-day life to work on the SVR is their idea of a perfect holiday. "This is all me and Dave have wanted to do," adds Kev, swapping from his day job driving main line trains, and Dave as a track worker. "To have a week off work with your mate doing something you love, driving and firing steam trains, it's the thing dreams are made of," continues Dave.
"The longer you're here the more you become part of a family," says Kev. "We are a group of enthusiasts who work together to achieve the same goal. As a younger team, we carry on the work that the older generations set up."
Taking up to 12 years to train up the ranks from cleaner, to fireman to driver, this is not something that's done as a passing interest.
"With Kev's dad a driver, we'd look at him as kids and think we'd love to do that one day but thought it would never come; we never thought we'd stand here working the footplate together. So it's a bit of a wow factor really," smiles Dave.
With another shrill of the whistle, the great hulk of a machine grinds into action, leaving in her wake a trail of billowing grey smoke as she lumbers forward out of Bridgnorth station to pass from Shropshire to Worcestershire on her hour-long journey. Stopping along the way at the quaint and historic stations of Hampton Loade , Highley, Arley, Bewdley and finally Kidderminster, we travel through virtually unspoilt countryside; under tunnels and over bridges as the train closely follows the meandering course of the River Severn; passing over the Victoria Bridge perching high above the water as we drink in the views.
With carefully tended gardens and picnic areas at the stations, you can take the journey at your own pace, making the most of the picturesque river views at Arley and the beautiful stretches of valley left as Mother Nature intended.
Visitors come from far and wide. Chris and Wendy Sullivan from Southern Australia are relishing their Severn Valley experience on their touring holiday of Britain. "We are so impressed with the restoration of the carriages and the views are beautiful," enthuses Wendy; while Kevin Hemmings, self-confessed steam buff from Gloucester is enjoying his second trip. "Anything steam related, I'm there," he admits. "I don't know what it is with steam, ask any steam buff. It's the smell; it's just a crazy fascination with steam in general really."
And for some, it's a reminder of their youth. "I can remember steam trains as a young lad so it's a nice bit of nostalgia and keeps me feeling young," says Mike Reynolds from Dudley.
"The original founders never thought it would develop like this: carrying 250,000 people a year and still going 40 years on. It's extraordinary," observes Marketing Manager, John Leach. "The love of the railway is like a disease: once it gets under the skin. And the lovely thing about the railway is everyone has a role. It is a different work ethic and there is probably more loyalty. The volunteers have knowledge which you can only gain through years of experience."
Husband and wife team, Michael and Ann Danks from Kidderminster manage the dining trolley. At 69, they have been volunteering six years: Michael for his love of railways and Ann for the social element. "We used to be in retail so this suited us because we like people," says Ann. "We get to meet a lot of volunteers from all over the country: Torbay, Essex, you name it."
Even the separation of continents won't deter some willing volunteers: Signal man Tony Howker is spending his two-week holiday back from his newly adopted home of Australia to volunteer at the railway.
It is widely accepted, however, that there's a need to encourage more of the younger generation to volunteer. Newly elected Chairman of Bromsgrove District Council, Councillor Chris Scurrell swaps his council hat for that of Ticket Supervisor twice a month. At 65 he's been a fan of the railway for years and enjoys sharing his passion for it with visitors.
"There's nothing quite like a good, British steam engine," he notes. "I'm just about old enough to have travelled behind this type of engine when they were in normal service on British Railways. But we've been doing our level best to encourage youngsters to join the volunteer organisation because as we get older the railway won't survive without the youngsters."
Roy Mort, 66, worked in the maintenance shed at Bridgnorth for 23 years, and still helps out every Tuesday showing the new blood the ropes. "It's a way of life," he agrees. "As long as I'm able to walk I'll be here."
"Without the next generation, many of the traditional skills will be lost," agrees John Leach. "We have preserved so many skills like those of a wheelwright or a boiler smith, so it's up to us to maintain those skills for the future generations and for us to keep the wheels turning."
General information: Tel 01299 403816